' Cinema Romantico: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a retired British Intelligence agent, is recounting an interrogation he once underwent. He leans forward in his chair as if he is the man across the way staring himself down. The camera finds Oldman's face in close-up as he re-states the long-ago stated words. But it's not the words. It's the face. It's Gary Oldman's poker face and he's daring us, all of us, the audience, to call him out. We can't, much like no one throughout the whole of Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", based on the novel by John le Carré, seems able and/or willing to call him out because they don't know what he's thinking and they don't know what he knows. It must take 15 minutes at least for this George Smiley to even say a single solitary word. That's fairly amazing. This isn't "The Artist", mind you, this is a talkie. But Smiley really, truly only talks when he has something to say or has something he needs someone else to say. In any other situation in any other walk of life he seems to be sitting back and reading everyone and reacting internally. The guy's no blank slate but, my God, does he look like one.


Prideaux (Mark Strong), agent in the British Secret Service (i.e. The Circus), is sent to Hungary to glean a little info for his craggly boss Control (John Hurt). Things go wrong. Prideaux is shot while trying to flee. Thus, Control and his second-in-command, Smiley, are forced into retirement. Time out of the office for Smiley seems to pass with no difference whatsoever compared to his in office demeanor. Eventually, as he must be, Smiley is brought out of retirement to investigate the claims made by agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) that there is a Soviet mole in the upper echelon of The Circus.

Who could it be? It could be Alleline (Toby Jones) who assumes Control's place. It could be Haydon (Colin Firth) who we discover has taken Smiley's spouse for a mistress. It could be Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) who, no offense, kinda lives up to his name. It could be Esterharse (David Dencik). Hell, it could be Smiley. Who's to say? He's not saying, not until he knows for sure, which will be eventually, eloquently revealed in a slow-moving but slow-burning suspenseful way that in perhaps the biggest surprise of all contains - by my count - but a single scene where a character, Smiley's right-hand man Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch), is trying to escape a room without being caught with a particular item of vast importance he's not supposed to have. That's a bigger twist than the film's actual Big Twist, if you ask me. Typical spy movie goings-on are sidelined.

The film skips back and forth between the past and present of Smiley's life (and employs one of the more unique devices to differentiate the switches that I can recall in a film - that is, in one of the very first scenes he gets a new pair of glasses and, thus, for the rest of the film it means that Old Glasses = Past and New Glasses = Present). We learn how this Ricki Tarr came into possession of information regarding the double agent, a short passage involving a doomed (kind of) love affair with a red-headed Russian beauty (Svetlana Khodchenkova) that is the closest the movie really ever gets to humanizing anything. No one has much of a personality, precisely because they can't, and emotional and even political motivation are virtually non-existent. These are men doing nothing more then their jobs.


Get it straight, there are a lot of characters revolving in and out of this movie and a lot of information to digest. It is a foregone conclusion that unless you are Stanley Spector from "Magnolia" you are at one point or another going to get lost. You will be attempting to figure out the scene that just happened and without even realizing it most of the next scene will pass and you will have missed a crucial tidbit and suddenly be trying to figure something else out. Don't worry about it. This simply puts you on the same playing field as everyone else. The film's greatest sensations don't even lay in the Who? or the Why? but in the way it goes about trying to get answers to those questions and specifically in the way Smiley goes about it.

This makes "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" something of a puzzle (on top of the puzzle within the film itself). It's superbly done and superbly acted, particularly by Gary Oldman who deserves an Oscar nod for being so commanding in a role designed to be non-showy, but the big unveiling of the Big Surprise is surprisingly anti-climactic. Then again, that's kinda the way the movie wants it. It's not flashy, it's nuts and bolts, just like Smiley, whom, in the end, we know a little but not much of anything about really.

It's a character study about characters who are actively going to great lengths not to be studied. And that's more confusing than any piece of plot.

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