Monday, January 16, 2012
Loner Lover: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Nothing on the surface of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would suggest that it’s a hard movie to keep up with. From a distance, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carre’s 1974 novel unfolds with the calm of an Englishman’s Sunday stroll, which of course is precisely the point. Le Carre wrote Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, and the other books of its series, as an alternative to the action-packed James Bond adventures, and Alfredson is faithful to that intent. Guns are fired in Alfredson’s film, but there are no shootouts. Punches are thrown, but there are no fight scenes. Pursuit of the enemy is a constant, but there are no chase sequences. Somehow the movie is still outwardly slower than what I just described, and yet it challenges us to match its pace. Just beyond its calm demeanor and passive posture, Tinker Tailor is a maelstrom of information – clues dropped without fanfare, all of them exposing hidden truths that point to the identity of the mole and then to even deeper personal truths beyond that. Those who have read the novel or watched the 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guiness will have an easier time staying afloat. But the rest of us have no choice but to splash around in the torrent of first names, last names, codenames, nods, glances and insinuations while trying to keep our heads above water.
The first time I watched Tinker Tailor, I followed it well enough, but it took a second viewing to really feel it. There’s no shame in that, nor is there fault to be found in the film’s deliberate avoidance of boldface elucidation. Alfredson’s adaptation is a reflection of the film’s main character, George Smiley, the externally unhurried former agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service who goes searching for a mole inside the “Circus” as a storm of doubts, regrets and suspicions thunders inside him. At the same time, Tinker Tailor puts us in touch with Smiley’s experience, giving us a palpable sense of, and a great respect for, the tangled web of information that he must unravel to uncover the truth. Smiley is never spoon-fed, and thus we aren’t either, and no matter how many clues pass before us, Smiley is always one step ahead, deciphering the significance of the seemingly trivial. Thus, we often spot that Smiley has had an epiphany long before we have one of our own. The complexities of the plot are reason enough to see the movie (at least) twice, but there’s also this: Among other things, Tinker Tailor is actually about the act of reexamination, the discovery of new details through a second look at the familiar.
In what stands as my favorite male lead performance of 2011, Gary Oldman plays the man doing the looking. His portrayal of Smiley is an exemplar of acting best, not most, right down to Oldman’s avoidance of overacting his under-acting, as, say, Dustin Hoffman might have managed to do. Smiley’s taciturn temperament is his most defining characteristic, but it isn’t so prevalent that he becomes a caricature or otherwise one-dimensional. Smiley is subdued, yes, but not unexcitable. He’s introverted but not inscrutable. He’s stiff but not robotic. In scene after scene, Oldman makes every gesture count, from the look of sadness that slips across his face when he realizes that his dear departed friend, John Hurt’s Control, considered that he might be the mole, to the way he sizes up the flight pattern of a buzzing bee in order to let it out of a cramped car, to the way he wordlessly shakes a bottle of alcohol to playfully encourage a drink with a friend. Adorned in oversized glasses, as if to maximize his view of the entire chessboard, Smiley reminds neither of James Bond nor even Sherlock Holmes (not the classic version, the hyper-physical Robert Downey Jr. version or the hyper-cerebral Benedict Cumberbatch version). He’s a grandfatherly figure, albeit one without a family, and that seemingly innocuous contradiction points the way to the story’s darker secrets.
Tinker Tailor, like many of its characters, has two identities: it’s a labyrinthine whodunit, but it's also an examination of loneliness. The agents in the Circus are good at keeping secrets because they have few people in their lives to keep secrets from, and in some cases their personal lives are as covert as their careers. These men are born-loners who thus are well equipped to spend their lives figuratively and literally underground in the Circus, except that their solitude also makes them vulnerable: a loner’s weakness is a relationship, and in Tinker Tailor relationships – brotherly, platonic, romantic or otherwise – are hazards, not ports in the storm. Emotions cloud judgment. Love blinds. These themes are expressed through the story of Smiley, whose quiet house screams with the absence of his beloved wife, and the subplots of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who allows himself to believe in a happy ending he’s smart enough to know is impossible, and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a former Circus agent turned teacher who befriends an overweight schoolboy who is plagued with self-doubt. “You’re good watcher though, eh?” Prideaux assures the boy. “Us loners always are.”
That’s about as on-the-nose as Tinker Tailor gets, and the beauty of Alfredson’s film, from a screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, is that the same revelations that point toward the identity of the mole also serve the character study unfolding just out of the spotlight. As in 2008’s Let the Right One In, Alfredson demonstrates a knack for creating rich atmosphere, from the tension of the cylindrical room in which the heads of the Circus hold their meetings to the festiveness of the Christmas party at which everyone joins in singing the Soviet national anthem (and other more significant events happen, too). With gorgeous cinematography from Hoyte Van Hoytema and a soothing yet anxious score by Alberto Iglesias, Tinker Tailor is engrossing even when it’s perplexing, and if that sounds like yet another contradiction, so be it; the movie is full of them. In one noteworthy scene, one of Smiley’s former colleagues flips through old photographs, nostalgically caressing the faces of her “lovely boys.” “That was a good time, George,” she says to Smiley, thinking back on their careers. “It was the war,” he corrects her. When emotions come into play, even the most obvious realities can be hard to see.