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.


Craig said...

Well done. I saw the miniseries a long time ago and am one of the few who didn't care for it, only recalling certain scenes as they unfolded in this version. (I did remember who the mole was.) Alfredson's film is very good, though his narrative shorthand can be confusing at times. Matt Seitz compared the movie to "The Godfather" in that it sets up each scene to let the audience figure out the implications. That's true up to a point, except "Tinker Tailor" hops around globally and weaves in and out of time much more than "The Godfather" did. I had less trouble figuring out what was happening than where it was happening, but it's the kind of film where I enjoy being confused.

I also admire Alfredson, et al for deviating from the novel in ways large and small. The Christmas party is the most prominent example (and extremely effective in each fragment we see of it), but also seemingly insignificant moments like the recurring image of Smiley swimming. The British critic Peter Hitchens (Christopher's brother) objected to this, and the movie in general, but I like the notion that this Smiley is active despite his cool, passive surface demeanor (and despite the leisureliness of his swimming). It's a sign that he isn't ready to quit.

Richard Bellamy said...

Well done. This expresses your enthusiasm for the film and its many strengths. I especially liked the atmosphere. The Circus seems such a cold place, and I like the old guy at the gate who'd be a pushover in a commando raid. It's a pathetic place, and the parties are pathetic, but the singing of the commie anthem scene is excellent. There's a lot in this movie you just wouldn't find in an American spy film and it's refreshing for that reason.

One of the saddest scenes comes when Jim Prideaux brushes off the overweight boy and tells him to go and play; most likely the boy reminds him of the loner he must have been when he was a boy.

jake said...

Wonderful review, Jason. It's reassuring to know one of my very favorite critics enjoyed the movie the way I did.

One of my most trusted movie buff friends did not like this one because he "felt overwhelmed and smothered by the heaviness and sludgy pace," but that's exactly what I loved about it. Unlike other films of its genre, this wasn't a crisply moving, clean-cut (though it wasn't sloppy by any means) spy film. It was so patient and unhurried and in control of itself, almost meditative.

And the loneliness you talked about. Such a valuable, rewarding decision by the writers and filmmakers to expose this aspect of a spy's life the way they did. It was apparent throughout and culminated nicely (tragically) in that last meeting between Strong and Colin Firth, the latter of whom I thought was really fascinating in this. I was surprised you didn't mention him more...

Anyhow, great great film, and fantastic review.

Jason Bellamy said...

Fellas, sorry for the late response on these.

* Craig: Despite your experience, I'd be interested in seeing some of the miniseries, but I was happy not to have those expectations hanging over this movie.

"I like the notion that this Smiley is active despite his cool, passive surface demeanor..."

I do, too, and his activeness is all in character. He isn't turning out laps. He's just ... swimming. Head up. Glasses on. It's perfect.

* Hokahey: The atmosphere is fantastic. Agreed.

One of the saddest scenes comes when Jim Prideaux brushes off the overweight boy and tells him to go and play; most likely the boy reminds him of the loner he must have been when he was a boy.

Oh, yes, he sees himself in the boy. And it allows him to give the boy the understanding and warmth he needs early, until later he scares the boy as if to assure the young lad doesn't follow in his footsteps and live his adulthood in loneliness, too.

* Jake: It's not that Firth isn't great. He is. The whole cast is. But Smiley and the atmosphere are the dominant characters, for sure.

It was so patient and unhurried and in control of itself, almost meditative.

What's interesting is that when you watch the movie a second time it all feels so clear. Not "obvious," as if you were dumb not to figure it out the first time (because the movie intentionally thwarts such efforts). But it isn't convoluted at all. And then the emotions come out.

The pace is hard to explain: like you say, it's so patient, and yet there's all sorts of frenzy and melodrama happening just below that perfect calm, and you can feel that, even when you can't quite see it. Great movie.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm happy you liked this film, Jason. It truly does gain immeasurably from a second viewing. And it insinuates itself into your thoughts. Over the past six weeks since I first saw it, TINKER has slowly climbed to the top of my list of best films of 2011, which I consider one of the best years cinema has had in quite a while. Oldman's performance is my favorite of the year as well. I'm so obsessed with this film I might continue evangelizing about its virtues for some time to come. I've even stocked up on the original novels and every other film or TV series featuring the Smiley character.

Jason Bellamy said... insinuates itself into your thoughts.

Tony: It sure does. I haven't made a dive into the other Tinker Tailor works quite yet (although I'm interested, for sure), but this movie's atmosphere hangs right there in my mind. I haven't read through the piece yet, but I saw your year-end list included TTSS at the top. Need to read about the others. Great film!

Andrew K. said...

This is fine review of an even finer film. I'm having such a difficult time offering a critical analysis of it, probably because it's so dense - in a good way. It's so excellently sure of itself, and manages to be decisive without being overly precise.

And, it's superb on all the technical fronts, too.

Shourjo said...

This is a really well-written review that manages to tease out all the complexity and grandeur from a very dense film. Really nice job. I also saw the film twice and really enjoyed it even more the second time, when every nod and glance took on even greater meaning in a more informed personal context. I'm not sure if this is an apt description but I commented to a friend of mine who'd not yet seen it that TTSS was like the Mad Men of spy flicks in how quietly and measured the interpersonal relationships and charater work is implemented.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'm not sure if this is an apt description but I commented to a friend of mine who'd not yet seen it that TTSS was like the Mad Men of spy flicks in how quietly and measured the interpersonal relationships and charater work is implemented.

Oh, I'm sure it we took the comparison too seriously, we'd find all sorts of reasons it doesn't line up. But in general spirit I think it's a very apt comparison. In both, the setting itself, and the atmosphere of the drama within that setting, is a huge part of the draw, perhaps the actual main character. And in both, seemingly insignificant gestures and nuances can hint at something much deeper on closer examination. And in both, there is a lot of plot there, but the plot is just an excuse to explore everything in front of us.

I like it!

Buck Theorem said...

When I saw the Alfredson film, I was stunned at the brilliant plotting and clues. I then saw the miniseries which was also exemplary (and which my friend called "deliciously slow"; actually "the Smiley's People" miniseries might be be even better).

I have just read Le Carre's novel and am totally hooked and it seems that both screen adaptations have respected Le Carre's brilliant plotting and pacing and all those hints and unspoken cues and implications. And so they should, but that they pulled it off without recourse to too much overstating seems quite remarkable (perhaps the only wrong note would be Alfredson's inclusion of Control using chess pieces representing the moles).

"Tinker, Tailor" really feels like a very adult entertainment (and moreso even than "Tree of Life"). The plot that seems so confusing on first viewing/reading definitely shows itself as coherent and finely tuned upon multiple revisits.

The quietly scathing criticism of certain English elitism is a definite bonus. The scenes between Prideaux and "Jumbo" (the boy) are so very loaded (and so very touching, especially in the novel) because Le Carre is showing how lonely kids with certain schooling can be groomed into becoming spies.
And then The Circus becomes like a bunch of prefects bickering for top place: for all their eloquence, intellect, and worldly knowledge, the Circus doesn't seem especially mature.

All to say: make sure you read the original novel and its sequels.

PO13 said...


I have been reading your work for over a year now, and I wanted to make a first comment about how much I appreciate your writing and how it has helped my critical thinking when watching and discussing film.

This review especially hit home with the assured complexity of the plot, and it fits into my new strategy for watching film. I'll watch a film first, let it simmer for a few days while reading some great writing about it, and then watch it again before rating/reviewing it. I don't want to be influenced by writers such as yourself, but it does help to look for certain things you mention.

Thanks again for the great writing as I try to improve my own. One of the better parts of this film was the opening as Smiley didn't speak for what seemed like a good 20 minutes. When he did it was calm and reserved, like he does that all the time.

Jason Bellamy said...

PO13: Thanks so much for the very kind words. Much appreciated!

As for this ...

"I'll watch a film first, let it simmer for a few days while reading some great writing about it, and then watch it again before rating/reviewing it. I don't want to be influenced by writers such as yourself, but it does help to look for certain things you mention."

For what it's worth, my general approach tends to be ...

* Try to see a trailer no more than once. If I have any interest at all, I try to avoid the trailer entirely. (For example, I didn't see so much as a teaser trailer for the recent Batman film.)

* DEFINITELY avoid reading about the movie before I see it.

* See it.

* Let it simmer. (Yes!)

* Sometimes I'll end up reading a few pieces about something before I write ... but usually that's by accident or because I'm not sure if/when I'm going to get around to writing. Otherwise, I try to write it out and post it without reading anything else. It's less because I'm worried I'm going to ape someone else's take; it's more because I'm worried I'll abandon my "own" take if I read another one that happens to be close to mine.

Keep writing!