19 September 2011


After watching The Man With The Golden Gun for BlogalongaBond, I was happy to receive something that puts itself a million miles from the frippery of the James Bond franchise. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is based on the novel by John le Carré, and as an espionage thriller, it's much less cool than it is cold.

It centres around the upper echelons of MI6, or, as it's called in-house, "the Circus". After a botched operation in Hungary, it's discovered that there is a Soviet mole within the Circus leadership. Retired agent George Smiley is tasked with rooting out the mole, although he is one of the five suspects himself. He must carry out his investigation without the knowledge of his former colleagues- Alleline, Bland, Esterhase and Haydon- all of whom are hiding one thing or another.

The film is directed by Tomas Alfredson, a Swedish auteur perhaps best known for the huge crossover success of Let The Right One In, in 2008. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has similar subtleties, and has duly met with a similar level of critical acclaim. With the shadow of the BBC's TV adaptation looming large, Alfredson has seemingly updated the story in a way that doesn't mean setting it in the modern day. For starters, he has less time to tell the tale than the seven-part series, but he somehow manages it in a spry and engaging 127 minutes.

It's refreshing to see that something like this can get a wide release in multiplexes, and a general buzz of anticipation about it. In no small part, that's down to the likelihood of the film being a major contender during awards season, as well as the stellar ensemble cast, but it's not indicative of an accessible, crowd-pleasing film either. The recent frame of reference for films like this is probably Inception, which is cerebral, complex and demands that its audience keeps track of the plot. All the same, Inception had lots of dialogue in which characters explained what was going on, whereas this one is far more demanding.

Helpful though it is, that we have an existing context for the Cold War setting, and the tensions between the East and the West, the film takes that as read and delivers heaps of subtext, rather than spoon-feeding anything. The closest we get to an exposition dump is a newly invented scene at the Circus Christmas party, to which we return throughout the film, and it's still showing us rather than telling us. The lead characters in this film are all so suspicious of one another, that they're all playing their cards close to the chest- why the hell would they tell the audience anything either?

All of which is not to say that it's an inscrutable film, because to pull off what Alfredson has managed here, you need actors as good as Gary Oldman, and Colin Firth, and John Hurt, and-- oh, the list is endless. Oldman's Smiley is rightly getting a strong Best Actor awards buzz around it- it's one of his grandly understated performances, and even for him, it's an extraordinary turn. His character doesn't waste a single word, and it leads to blisteringly brilliant confrontations with several of the principal castmembers in the course of his investigation.

It feels almost like there are too many good actors in this thing, to single them all out. Every single role is played well, and usually by a phenomenal British actor of considerable stature. Tom Hardy is worthy of distinction as Ricki Tarr, but then he usually is, with his all but unique capacity to utterly inhabit a role. Benedict Cumberbatch is also on top form, in a role that proves his range outside of playing creeps on the big screen and Sherlock Holmes on the small screen. But it's still the way in which all of these British screen titans gel together that makes the ensemble bigger than the sum of its parts.

The film is very male, as you might have gathered. I counted about three women in the whole film, and the excellent Kathy Burke was the only name amongst them. But it all lends to the pervading atmosphere that Alfredson encourages, in which these men in authority have cultivated paranoia and corruption amongst their own ranks. Hardly anybody completely trusts one another in this film, which also makes the roles played by Cumberbatch and Hardy all the more interesting, and the Circus seems pretty much irreparable. It's set in 1973, and Alfredson's most overt statement of this message comes with a bit of graffiti tucked away in the mise-en-scene- "The Future Is Female."

Still, it seems to have largely been men who put this film together, so we're not all bad. With the calibre of the British talent on-screen, kudos should go to the international talent behind the scenes, not least of all for Alfredson. The cinematography by Alfredson's collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema, who also worked on The Fighter this year, is stunning in how successfully it makes "drab" look interesting. And Alberto Iglesias, who recently provided the music for The Skin I Live In, services the film with a compulsive and stealthy John Barry-esque score.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy announces this year's awards season quietly, but it's hugely impressive. You could easily praise any given part of it, with the fine performances, or even Gary Oldman by himself, or the stunning direction, or the memorable score. But the overall effect of the film, and how all of those elements come together, is bigger than any one of those elements alone, and that is its triumph. It's possibly premature to talk about Oscars, seeing as how this surely going to be the least emotionally accessible contender of the season, but it's hard to argue that it will also be one of the best.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, why not share your comments below? Between the Harry Potter films and this one, they've covered pretty much every great, living British actor, right?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: