Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: directed by Tomas Alfredson; written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan
I haven’t read a John le Carré novel in years, and this one specifically in much longer but I do remember in the time when my appetite for literature was voracious I fondly used to refer to le Carré as the writer of “density without intensity”. Let me stress, it was said with irony. See, that line emerges from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine Pulitzer Prize winning play Sunday in the Park with George.Two fellow painters are observing the work of art of a peer, George Seurat (google pointillism) and snidely intimate that his work is all density with no intensity, all skill and no emotion. This is, incidentally, a criticism that was lodged at Sondheim in his youth – too cerebral, I presume. I adore Sondheim, and you’re reading my blog so you know where I stand on the cerebral.
And, see, those two preceding paragraphs of mine probably make this sound like some sort of joyless, oppressive, abstruse thing when it’s so completely not because at the root of it Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a basis that’s rather simple. The man involved in the maybe-a-red-herring-maybe-not was attempting to carry out an investigation searching for a mole inserted in the British Intelligence under the auspices of Control, the man in charge. Prideaux is shot, and Control and his second-in-command Smiley are forced out of the agency. As I said, the opening is all brilliant, essential and something of a nonstarter. The story doesn’t actually start until the jump in time. Smiley is picks up the dregs of Prideaux and launches into the investigation. He doesn’t get immediately shot, either. To attempt a plot detail of the remainder of the film would not only embarrass me exponentially, but would also be a disservice to the film. So, I’ll refrain. Needless, to say, as Smiley and allies launch into the investigation every moment of the film becomes a two hour building of blocks to land us with the ultimate payoff of the reveal at the film’s end.
But, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not a standard whodunit. The “who” is important, as is the “it” under discussion but even as each scene contributes to the movement towards that final dénouement, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its inherent narrative density (even on screen) is indicative of a myriad of burgeoning issues at work. The journey towards finding the mole is paralleled and complemented by the inherent isolation which hangs over the characters in the film. It doesn’t bode well for cinema to keep pitting film against film, but I will say (and this is, of course, because of its intricate source material and the very compact adaptation courtesy of Straughan and O’Connor) unlike the more noted films in the spy oeuvre Tinker Tailor does an excellent job of de-glamorising the world its characters inhabit, and touching on the intrinsic sadness of their lives. So that, when the final stand falls into place and the aha moment comes, it’s devastating not specifically because we’ve fallen in love with the characters (although we might have managed to feel for them) but because the mood Alfredson cultivates is one which emphasises the wholly melancholia.
And, the entire cinematic team is quick and ready to make good on that feeling of melancholy. Hoy von Hoytmea’s cinematography, Maria Djurkovic and Tatiana MacDonaldd production design, Jacqueline Durran’s costumes and Alberto Iglesias score all contribute to the very distinguished slow burn of the affair. A spy affair that’s a throwback to the 70s could sound like something of a nonstarter, and it’s essential that Iglesias creates a world that’s not just picturesque to look at (but, damn, dun colours have never looked so spectacularly enchanting) but one that’s atmospherically rich and palpably moody. It is, and it does. And the actors are more than happy to follow suit.
Since the film is the specific type of mystery which is significantly conversation driven it demands a great deal from the actors. A roll call would seem pretentious, and I hate to single out any of them as “best”, especially since that might portend to the revelation of spoilers which I’d rather not get into. I will say this, for all the loneliness evocative of the piece’s most strident themes the film soars (as in there is nothing that is NOT astonishing) in moments when the men tee off against each other. Seeing actors acting together is a real thrill, seeing them act off each other is even better. I can’t think of a finer all-male ensemble other than Lawrence of Arabia (and other than Sharif and O’Toole it never strikes me as an actorly flick). And, incidentally, it’s that very reason that made me think I mightn’t love Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I like a few of these gents individually, but such an all-male event seems decidedly not for me; but it proves me wrong on that front, although it probably proves me right on the cerebral end. Either way, it’s worth it.