Friday, January 6, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I will admit to being an Anglophile.  Ask anyone who has known me for more than 20 minutes, and that facet of my character should have already made itself plain.  I have been for as long as I can remember.   It's the natural outcome when one has been reared on a steady diet of PBS and Jane Austen.  Armed with this, perhaps, new knowledge of myself, it should come as no surprise that I had indeed been looking forward to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for quite a while. Between the phenomenal cast, the intriguing trailer and the spy genre in general, I find it difficult to believe that there are people that WOULDN'T be excited to see it; but alas, there are people who will be turned off by it for one reason or another, and the loss is theirs because this is a movie that is deserving of at least one viewing, perhaps even requiring more.
First, a quick background lesson on the source material.  Published in 1974, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first in what would become known as John Le Carre's "Karla trilogy" focusing on the efforts of British Intelligence during the Cold War.  In 1979, it was also made into a mini series starring Alec Guinness, although I admit, I would have a difficult time now seeing Obi-Wan as a master spy in modern attire, apparently his performance was so impressive, it ended up influencing Le Carre's writing for the character, George Smiley, in subsequent novels.  In no uncertain terms, Le Carre's novels were a pretty big deal at the time, although I hadn't (and I'm sure a good percentage of my generation) hadn't heard of them until this modern adaptation.  A little bit of digging and Youtubing will also provide you with the knowledge that Le Carre himself was ex-British Intelligence himself, so there's at least a modicum of authenticity lent to the subject, despite the fiction that the pages hold.
Set in 1973 London, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is the story of George Smiley (the sublime as always Gary Oldman), a retired intelligence officer, who is given the unenviable task of uncovering a double agent.  It's the height of The Cold War and someone at the top of the intelligence community's food chain is trading secrets with the Russians.  After his recently-deceased boss, code named Control (John Hurt) has narrowed the field of possible suspects down to five men, Smiley must take up the mantle and determine which one, Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds, Spy or Poor Man (all code names taken from a British nursery rhyme) is the traitor.  Through a haze of flashbacks and suspense-filled moments, the film unfolds itself and between the storytelling and the film production,  you simply cannot look away.
Unlike many of the recent American interpretations of spy films (The Bourne Identity, Mission Impossible, both of which I adore, by the way) this film doesn't fall back on the habits of spoon-feeding an attention deficient audience.  George Smiley does not have the appearance of Ethan Hunt or Jason Bourne.  He's a regular man, in fact, he's an aging man in a world that has decided to move forward without his permission.  He has a strained (at best) relationship with his wife, he is reserved, impeccably dressed and a slave to the habits that he has invented for himself.  Yet, in a world in which technology and tactics are changing at a breakneck pace, he has been viewed as a remnant, and discarded.  Begrudgingly he accepts the task laid before him and what Oldman's entrancing performance brings to the forefront is that Smiley is not a man to be underestimated.  Fully in control of every situation and every person in that situation, it's as if his influence is never felt, until it's too late for the other person involved.  And yet, despite all professional power, he does have his personal weaknesses.  Oldman's Smiley is a man who seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders and yet trudges on, determined and, every now and then, quietly triumphant.  His scene on the tarmac in which he confronts one of his targets could be a master class in understated, yet, ultimate control.  His voice never rises, his face set as if in a mold, literally framed by his perfectly-period glasses, he sees nothing and everything, he is the poster boy for self-awareness, except for one heartbreaking moment at an office Christmas party.
In fact, Smiley is the pace-setter for this film, along with, of course, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In).  It unfolds like a foreign film, a slow, steady, suspenseful pace is set and all the pieces are laid out before us.  It's not a strictly linear story, and yet the flashbacks, especially the flashbacks of the Christmas Party, weave in and out beautifully. The Christmas Party felt to me like the scene of the van falling in Inception, the one moment that everyone in the audience could be brought back to in order to reset and see where everything started to unravel.  With movies like this, it's impossible not to be guessing from the beginning, and to the credit of everyone involved, enough breadcrumbs are thrown to keep everyone on the trail, but surprisingly, I don't think the reveal is the culmination of the movie.  Of course, it's important, but there was another moment that stood out to me, as being the moment where everything becomes decided. If you really want to know the moment, you can ask me, after you've seen the film, but I won't give it away here.
This is a film heavy with not just style, but atmosphere.  Everything from the clothing and hairstyles to the music make this feel as if you had stepped through time back in to the 70s, and for a subject that could easily be seen as outdated, it feels both entertaining and relevant.  While I do feel that the main characters of the title are slightly under-developed, this is Oldman's show, and he grabs the reigns, controlling the audience much as he controls his targets, without ostentation, just a firm knowledge of the fact that he's the one throwing this party, everyone else is just here as a guest.  Although, the guest who deserves the MVP is Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as Peter, the audience stand-in, and much put-upon assistant to Smiley.  The moment when he realizes just how dangerous this business really is turns into one of the emotional footholds of the movie.  We see through his eyes, guessing along with him, holding our breath, unaware, until they're almost breached, of just how high the stakes are.  It's a surprisingly quiet, unfettered, and human movie for a story about spies and the 70s.  Since he seems to have always been aiming to be the anti-Bond, it seems that this is absolutely and adaptation that Le Carre and all the players involved should be proud of.

Overall: 5 out of 5


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