Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

When Boys Will Be Boys, And Spies Will Be Spies

Svetlana Khodchenkova as Irina and Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr in Tomas Alfredson's drama "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy". 
Jack English/Focus Features


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, December 31
, 2011

"Trust no one Jim, especially not in the mainstream," advises Control (John Hurt) to Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) very early on in Tomas Alfredson's magnificent Cold War spy drama "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", based on John le Carré's groundbreaking novel of the same name, with a script by the late Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan.  Mr. le Carre had a lengthy career in the British Intelligence spy agency MI6, and for those not in the know, has written several novels dramatizing that world.  The film is now playing in the U.S. and Canada.

It is London, 1973.  A mole has infected the upper reaches of the British Intelligence agency known as The Circus, and after a mission goes awry in Budapest two of its mainstays George Smiley (Gary Oldman) and Control are dismissed unceremoniously.  Smiley is brought back by the intelligence chief after the mole revelation and with the help of up-and-coming Circus member Peter Guillam (Beneditc Cumberbatch) conducts an investigation to identify and excise the mole.  Lots of trap doors have to be open and shut in the process, with red herrings and shady-looking figures, not to mention visits to Budapest and other outlying areas.  These are your mother's Secret Agent Men, but they're buttoned down and belted up.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" looks and feels like a film about the 1970s made in the 1970s but like a film set in the 1950s.  There's an order and meticulousness about the film's surroundings, a tidiness that is rigid and clean, even as events beneath the surface are anything but.  Its shadowy, blurry atmosphere wafts into your mind and your senses, percolating with quiet suspense.  This is a thoughtful, eloquent movie about people and the choices they make in love, work and betrayal, set in a complex web of relationships, suggestions and dalliances.  Like "The Insider", this mature adult conversational is constantly working on you, and the involving dialogue is augmented by the best, most talented and illustrious ensemble cast of actors in a film this year.  (In one scene there's an irresistible homage to Otto Preminger's "Anatomy Of A Murder", and it fits so well here.)

Mr. Oldman does the best work of his career with his excellent performance as the ironically named Smiley -- though a wisp of smile may have passed across his face in the film's climax.  Mr. Oldman is probably the world's best actor these days, but hasn't always had the vehicles to truly demonstrate that.  He's a chameleon but he truly gets to show this on screen for two hours, camouflaged as a Smiley who is less robust, more introverted than Mr. Guinness's incarnation.  Mr. Oldman's Smiley says everything and nothing, and so superbly as a man anesthetized from feelings even as the men around him do so.  He won't allow himself to divert one iota from his duty: to bring Circus' traitor mole into the light. 

Smiley flickers only briefly at the adulterous activities of his wife Anne, whose face we never see, though we sense her.  Smiley, who looks like author Graham Greene, doesn't blink much or smile.  He's worn with the reality of his job and won't exhale from the responsibilities he has until it's safe to.  I wanted to spend more time with Smiley after the film was over.  I found him a fascinating figure not only in his manner and equilibrium but in how he moderates quiet isolation with a methodical, steady and unwavering sense of justice.  Mr. Oldman plays the most reclusive if not repressed character of his career and presides here like the intellectual 800-pound elephant in the spy room.  Mr. Cumberbatch, Mr. Strong, Mr. Hardy and Mr. Firth are all particularly good among a great cast, besides Mr. Oldman.

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson's drama "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy".  Jack English/Focus Features

The spy world of "Tinker Tailor", also a memorable 1970s BBC television series starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, is wonderfully realized through Marina Djurkovic's excellent production design and Tatiana MacDonald's detailed set decoration.  This film depicts spy world intelligence as it really is.  No gadgets, as in Ian Fleming's James Bond.  No high-rise hair-raising stunts like "Mission: Impossible 4".  No sexy cars to burn up narrow roads with.  This is old school spy kingdom of the highest order and it's brilliant cinema, a great experience to witness on the big screen.

Mr. Alfredson's film requires your total thought and attention, and while it is difficult at times to follow with its events almost constantly out of sequence, "Tinker Tailor" is always about its atmosphere of mystery and perception, with its many layers built so well through Hoyte Van Hoytema's cinematography and Dino Jonsäter's editing.  Slowly-paced, finely textured and absorbing, the smallest moments and elements of Mr. Alfredson's film are meaningful and onomatopoeic.  Alberto Iglesias' tremendous score gives the film its adventure and machinations.  Mr. Alfredson directs "Tinker" with so much care and precision and gets the mood and pitch of the story and its players so well.  In executing "Tinker Tailor" so confidently he makes the film firmly his own while retaining the key elements from Mr. le Carré's novel; the author was a consultant and executive producer on the film. 

What you see in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", one of the ten best films of 2011, is the slow but sure expiration of men in their trades.  The cool, smoky scenery of a drab, gray 1970s London perfectly illustrates the wariness of effete men.  London was known for an undercurrent of homosexuality forty years ago -- seen but not necessarily spoken.  Mr. Alfredson's film picks up on this theme, effectively blending spoken and unspoken male dynamics, homoeroticism and tenderness amongst brotherhoods of men, men who have time to feel and emote before their reckoning catches up with them. 

The relationships between men and women in Mr. Alfredson's film are mostly slight.  One woman has a sensational line in the first half-hour or so which speaks less to her status than it does the status of men estranged from their own heterosexuality.  That these men of the spy trade have women in their lives is almost a secret, spoken in hush-hush, closeted wink-winks.  Such discretion isn't necessarily for the purpose of their jobs; there's also ambiguity or irony at play. 

Some of the men of the Circus have first or last names with an effeminate feel or sound to them, and the way one of the men's first names is spelled -- Ricki, as in Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) -- the feminine spelling, connotes a bisexuality, not necessarily in the characters themselves but in the shifts in the societal mores, definitions and behaviors of the sexes in post-Swinging Sixties London.  Much of this film beautifully illustrates the femininity of a man's feelings; men in confessionals to other men, saying much about their feelings while not trying to give their role in the spy game away. 

As if signaling a shift or weakening in male control, graffiti seen in several shots reads "THE FUTURE IS FEMALE", perhaps foretelling Margaret Thatcher's future rise to power in the late 1970s as Britain's first (and only) female prime minister.  After the film's perfect ending, the late Bridget O'Connor, who was born in Harrow, north-west London -- practically my neighbor years ago -- is given a dedication.  So much of this film's language and feeling is borne of her wonderful screenwriting and her partnership on "Tinker Tailor" with her husband Mr. Straughan.  Ms. O'Connor's passing from cancer at the too-young age of 49 in September 2010 only underlines the sadness, poignancy and brief nature of life, as well as love and its fleeting way, depicted in this film so very impressively.

With: Colin Firth, David Dencik, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Kathy Burke, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Simon McBurney, Konstantin Khabensky, Erskine Wylie, Philip Martin Brown, Christian McKay, Stephen Graham, Roger Lloyd Pack, Katrina Vasileva.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language.  The film's duration is two hours and seven minutes.

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