Movies: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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This review appears on page 12 of the January 12 print edition of Ace.

by Raj Ranade

When a critic compares a movie to a video game, it’s usually a sign that he’s ticked off. That analogy generally refers to CGI onslaughts slapped together with all the finesse of a teenager on a Red Bull bender. This type of cinema couldn’t be more different from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a film of stately pace and quintessentially British restraint. But Tinker does resemble a video game in its own fascinating way – it’s a stimulating puzzle that demands your engagement, asking you to assemble blocks of plot into a comprehensible whole as more blocks rain down in a steady Tetris-style flow.

It’s an ingenious method of adaptation that director Tomas Alfredson has found here for John le Carré’s source novel. It took a BBC miniseries six hours to get through all the intricate details of this Cold War spy tale, which focuses on a retired intelligence agent returning to duty to hunt down a Russian mole placed at the top of Britain’s spy service. Alfredson here instead strips the story of the time-consuming exposition and hand-holding that audiences usually expect from a film, instead etching every plot detail in tossed-off bits of dialogue and loaded gestures between characters. This has the effect of making audiences feel more like spies than any more conventional rendering could – every image here must be interrogated for clues, every line of dialogue must be regarded with paranoid skepticism, and every time an actor appears on screen, it must be determined whether he’s delivering a performance or a performance-within-a-performance.

If this all sounds intimidating, well, it’s kind of meant to – compared to this film, the mystery in, say, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a children’s rebus with an answer key. But the fun of this adaptation isn’t solely in the intellectual workout – even if you miss some of the plot’s more devious machinations, the film’s chilly atmosphere and anguished emotions come through loud and clear.

Alfredson’s last film was 2008’s Let the Right One In, the best vampire story in a decade saturated by them, and he brings his gift for generating dread to this very different tale. Tinker‘s spies are mostly office-bound paper-pushers (there’s even the requisite office Christmas party, this one even more awkward than yours) whose work just so happens to result in a slit throat every now and then. So menace arrives not in dramatic moments but in subtle ones – a character asserts his power over another by whistling a tune in a hallway, an ambush is given away by a single drop of sweat, our protagonist’s psychology is illustrated by the way he deals with a fly buzzing around inside the windows of a car.

Alfredson gets a lot of mileage out of these kinds of seemingly throwaway directorial moments, but he make sure the big dramatic revelations and betrayals come through just as effectively through his smart casting and direction of actors. The casting in Tinker uses the Harry Potter strategy of putting as many distinguished British character actors to work as possible. That results in a veritable hall of fame of “that guy” thespians, actors whose names you probably don’t know but whose faces you’ll recognize.

Best among these are Tom Hardy (recent winner of the Ace Weekly Award for Most Underrated Performance of 2011) and Gary Oldman. Hardy here plays an agent on the run after he unwittingly stumbles upon the existence of the mole and reveals his discovery to the wrong person – a bundle of fidgety hand gestures and nervous twitching, Hardy here seems to vibrate with the guilt of what his accidental admission has wrought.

Oldman’s protagonist, George Smiley, on the other hand, is Hardy’s polar opposite. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film about men forced to repress their beliefs and desires into mental compartments as claustrophobic as Alfredson’s carefully-composed frames, and Oldman’s Smiley is the king of self-abnegation. In a performance of preternatural stillness, Oldman is the unlikeliest of badasses as a patient counterpuncher watching and waiting serenely for his moment to strike. Smiley has achieved a sort of triumph by the end of this film, but a somber closing montage (set to the mocking tune of a jaunty French pop cover) underlines the cost for everyone involved. “The future is female”, reads some prominently displayed graffiti outside a key safehouse towards the film’s end, and as the effects of this particularly male type of self-denial are illustrated, the viewer can’t help feeling thankful for that.

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