Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

We are not so very different, you and I. We've both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another's systems... Don’t you think it’s time to recognize there’s as little of worth on your side as there is on mine?  -- George Smiley

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) sits at the center of this slow boiling spy thriller.
With a pitch-perfect British cast, a cold-foreboding atmosphere and the Cold War as its backdrop, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy recalls the frigid spy films from the late 60s and 70s. If not for the specific actors involved, it would be nearly impossible to distinguish this from the classic thrillers of that era: The Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, etc. Alfredson, previously best known for the Swedish horror/fantasy Let the Right One In, crafts a cold, claustrophobic ambiance which reflects what it must have been like to be a spy in the dog days of the Cold War... a time when there was so much blood on everyone's hands, many men no longer knew or cared if they still worked for the "right side". Every detail, from the dark subdued colors, to the score serves to drown the audience in the characters' doubt and paranoia.

George Smiley (played by an austere Gary Oldman, evenly embodying the film's tone)--an agent forced to retire after his paranoid boss Control (John Hurt) botches an unauthorized operation--finds himself suddenly recalled back to the fold when a mole is discovered at the top of the "Circus" (codename for the British Intelligence Agency). No longer playing the spy game himself, Smiley is perfectly suited to using his own clandestine methods to methodically hunt down the mole. The suspects are the new Circus chief, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and his direct subordinates Bill Hayden (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhaus (David Dencik) and Roy Bland (Cirian Hinds).

Smiley is the perfect spy. Quiet, unassuming, detached and appearing entirely non-threatening, Tinker Tailor's Smiley directly belies what we've come to expect from modern-day spy movies: the death-defying maneuvers of Jason Bourne or the suave confidence (and constant explosions) of James Bond. Oldman, who finally received his first Oscar nomination for this role, easily inhabits the skin of Smiley... a man whose entire career is predicated on his ability to watch without being noticed, to see clearly and understand what has been obfuscated by others. Considering that Oldman is still best known for his roles as scenery chewing villains and/or more loudly tortured souls, the still, contemplative Smiley provides a refreshing contrast and proves that Oldman remains one of the most versatile actors working. Given the low-key nature of his performance, each rare instance of emotion which ripples through his calm veneer carries extra impact and adds greater depth to his disarmingly complex character. 

Unlike Alec Guinness's interpretation in the 1979 miniseries, Oldman's Smiley has a harder edge to him, and Oldman lacks Guiness's natural sense of warmth and amiability. His wintry approach fits with Alfredson's overall vision for the film (which is closer to the clinical tone of the book) and works all the better because for it. Alfredson smartly recognizes the resource he has in Oldman's measured performance, and for much of his screentime the camera wisely centers around his perfectly judged movements. In what is perhaps his best scene, Alfredson indulges in a full-on close-up when Oldman lets the mask fall away slightly as he describes his one encounter with his Russian rival, the mysterious Karla. 

The rest of the cast (a who's who of talented British character actors) complement this film's morose and paranoid atmosphere. Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch are the particular stand-outs (unsurprising since, aside from Oldman, they have the meatiest roles). Firth's Bill Hayden relies heavily on a roguish smile, which serves as an effective facade for his complex motives and machinations. Mark Strong plays Jim Prideaux, a washed up agent whose shooting at the beginning of the film serves as a catalyst for the twisted plot that follows. And with all the cool deception and weary acceptance of the aged players in this film, Cumberbatch as Peter Guillem (Oldman's right hand man in the investigation for the mole) provides a much needed injection of youthful energy. Guillam, shown to be bewildered and often out of his depth, is finally learning all he will have to sacrifice in order to flourish in such a clandestine business. 

The rest of the cast generally fits together well though some (most notably Cirian Hinds) are given nothing to do. Dencik knocks his one major scene out of the park. Jones as Percy Alleline is appropriately duplicitous and seedy and John Hurt's considerable screen-presence, as the recently departed Control, lurks over this movie like a fearful, paranoid specter. In a series of flashbacks throughout the film, which return to a Christmas party from before Control's downfall, we see these characters engaged in seemingly benign interactions. But as the film progresses, and we learn more about the histories of these spies and bureaucrats, the events acquire a decidedly more sinister and sordid air. 

Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan (a husband/wife team) skillfully condensed John le Carré's lengthy and labyrinthine novel into a tight two hour package. Necessarily, many of the supporting characters and their corresponding subplots were clipped if not removed entirely, but for the attentive viewer  should still be able to follow the story. That's not to say this film is obvious, however, this film spoon-feeds very few revelations to the audience. In order fully appreciate the considerable subtext this script still manages to effectively convey, the viewer must watch closely. 

One unfortunate effect of the abridging is that the revelation of the mole's identity hardly makes the dramatic impact that it should, which mutes the overall effectiveness of the film's ending. But the tragic arcs for certain characters helps to make up for the plot generally ending with a whimper, instead of a metaphorical bang. Regardless of this minor flaw, anyone who pines for the long-lost art of compelling, densely plotted thrillers, and who doesn't mind doing a little thinking with their movie-watching, should find Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy consistently holds their interest from beginning to end. 

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