TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY B+
Great Britain France Germany (127 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: Tomas Alfredson
Unlike anything else you’ll see this year, an intelligently restrained and thoroughly detached study of the dark and shadowy world that exists behind the face of the Cold War, circa the early 1970’s, as the British Intelligence has to clean up one of their messy operations gone wrong in Budapest, Hungary when an agent gets gunned down on the streets in broad daylight. An updated adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1974 novel, not to be confused with the 7-part made for TV British mini-series in 1979 starring Alec Guinness, this one stars Gary Oldham as Smiley, the agent brought out of forced retirement to investigate the presence of a double agent mole hidden within the upper ranks of their intelligence service. In an early sequence, all the suspected agents are gathered together into a room with the head of Intelligence (John Heard) laying out the problem while coolly indicating the mole was likely someone sitting with them at the moment in the room. Through a series of brief flashbacks mixed with current operations, it’s rare to find even the briefest glimpse of a clue, where these guys are professionals at leaving no tracks behind. Instead, bits and pieces of conversations from interpersonal relations are seen which reflect a hidden side of the characters introduced, where they all remain detached, indifferent and isolated, closed off from the rest of the world, unable to express openness, inconspicuously blending into the landscape without generating emotional sparks, making it hard for anyone to detect. What’s interesting is a continuing holiday office party sequence that appears throughout to plenty of drinks and cheesy music, each time offering a littler bit more information, which is one of the only times these guys are ever seen in a slightly informal setting, as each one is always on their guard, offering quick glances at one another, aware that they’re continually being watched.
Shot in Budapest, Istanbul, and London, this is a contemplative and deeply probing thinking man's movie, one of the darker looking films of the year, where cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema continually shoots agents as moving shadows engulfed in a black emptiness of oversized rooms, where looming underneath it all is a chilly atmosphere of mounting dread and paranoia. It's twenty minutes into the movie before Smiley utters a word, pursuing his leads in an extremely low key and deliberate manner, rarely speaking, revealing nothing, simply observing the men in their work, spending most of the time listening, occasionally asking questions about events that previously transpired, double checking their answers with the record, searching for blind spots and holes, always attempting to unearth a clearer picture of each and every step of the operations, continually unraveling and then putting back together again the various pieces of the puzzle. The world is so muddled and hazy that’s it hard to judge the progress, as traps are continually being set, so how does Smiley or the audience distinguish the truth from falsely planted clues? In this world, which is really the altered scenes behind the scenes, it all looks the same, where lies are perfectly incorporated into regular routines. While tempers grow short and fingers are pointed, the director offers occasional close ups where the camera at times feels too close and too intrusive, especially the blank look on Oldham’s face which betrays nothing in this overly polite world of manners and etiquette, where catching someone off guard or in an uncontrolled moment seems far fetched, where the audience can grow frustrated by the continuing compilation of minutiae and the subsequent lack of comprehension or progress on the case.
While there are quick bursts of violence when bad things happen to the wrong people, there’s nothing seemingly pointing to how the mission was compromised in the first place, only the horrifying consequences thrown into the faces of the viewer, where the price each agent pays to remain invisible can feel hollow and empty, where the inhuman unravels into the inhumane, where agents are asked to do the unspeakable. It’s hard to fathom what motivates men at this level, what drives them to put themselves into harm’s way, where if caught they can’t reveal anything, even under torture. In one of the more revealing scenes of the film, a reprise of that party sequence, the brightest undercover British agents are captured in a spontaneous moment of drunken revelry with a man in a Santa Claus suit wearing a Lenin mask leading the group in a rousing chorus of the Internationale, where Smiley uncomfortably backs out of the room to an outside balcony where he sees another man’s hands all over his wife, as they are kissing in the shadows. We never see any of the wives, and only have a limited window into the personal lives of the agents, where duty and sacrifice is the blood running through their veins and is at the core of their being. In something of a clever twist, there is the briefest insinuation of a homosexual affair, which sheds light into the closeted and secretive world of both a gay man in the 70’s and an intelligence agent, both having to invent a false or neutered personality to live by, a lie that never goes away, where either way tenderness or intimacy is the real danger that could blow their cover, literally destroying their lives. The film is a grey and murky world of secrets and betrayals where the undercurrent of life trembling in those veins is off limits, where the idea of romance or having a lifelong partner remains inaccessible and continually out of reach, where instead it is the dedication to consistency in their work and the accumulation of minute details that determines the man, where in this intensely distrustful business, each other is really all they have, brothers in an elite fraternity of subterfuge.