Saturday, January 07, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I was looking forward to the new Tinker Tailor Solider Spy as a fan of author John Le Carre and of all things to do with the Cold War espionage genre. Alec Guinness defined the role of Le Carre’s signature spy George Smiley in two British miniseries, but what a pleasure to report that director Tomas Alfredson has found a splendid new Smiley in Gary Oldman. With his hair colored and a pair of outsized glasses Oldman has been pushed forwards into middle age, and Oldman tamps down his personality and creates a compact study of anger and disappointment. The entire Tinker Tailor is an exercise in controlled underacting, and the result is a film that’s worthy of Le Carre and altogether one the year’s best. Fans of Le Carre know that in his world the headquarters of British intelligence is called the “Circus”. Alfredson doesn’t overdo the period production design (the story takes place in 1973), but makes the inside of the Circus look like something out of time. Documents are transported inside dumb waiters, conversations are recorded on giant reel-to-reels, and the chamber in which Agency head Control (John Hurt) and his top lieutenants deliberate is set off to the side like the fish tank that it is. Information is currency, and as usual not everyone knows where or how to spend it.


After a mission in Hungary goes badly wrong, Control and Smiley are retired as part of a Circus housecleaning. When information surfaces of a possible Soviet mole inside the Circus, Smiley is assigned the task of discovering the traitor’s identity at the exact moment that new Circus head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is pursuing a new intelligence alliance with America. Smiley’s mission is detailed and not at all confusing to attentive viewers; key information scattered throughout is given quietly, but it is given. Flashbacks are well-used, especially a key holiday party at which Smiley learns something surprising about his colleague Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Smiley thinks the mole may lead to Russian master spy Karla, and the speech in which Smiley recalls his one and only meeting with Karla is one of the scenes of the year. I’m so impressed with the pacing and editorial control Alfedson puts on display in Tinker Tailor that I almost think trying to describe it will diminish its power, but Alfredson’s hold on this material is so strong that he more than earns the moments when the movie stops and shows its heart. The costs of a life in secrets are considered here with great care, as is the fact that many of the casualties are still walking around. Connie (Kathy Burke) was forced out of the Circus after striking too close to a terrible secret, while Smiley’s aide Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) must protect himself by sacrificing part of his personal life. Mysteries are solved but there’s no recovery of what’s lost; intelligence is a machine that grinds away while leaving some behind.

It is almost joyous how quiet and old-fashioned the climax of Tinker Tailor is, at one point Smiley just leaves a phone off the hook and waits for a key piece of information. Like so many we’ve met along the way, Smiley has paid the price for his choices. The ending offers him a new start, but it also doesn’t shy away from the reasons why he needs one. A character study in spy movie clothes, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is a film of superb craft and surprising emotional power.

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