Friday, 3 February 2012

“All my boys, all my lovely boys.”

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.
I include that very rambling anecdote to establish that when I say density without intensity it’s a fond, in-joke with myself. But, I imagine that critics of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would use the same epithet as a bone of contention in their criticism of the film. Fair enough. I like density. Which is, all a roundabout way of saying that I’m an impossibly flawed critic (who isn’t?) and it probably shows since no one (but for me) would be surprised to find that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spyis exactly my cup of tea – densely inundated with information, ostensibly arid, often claustrophobic and oh, so very British. It’s opening scene, which is so bookish in the way it is established and in the fact that it turns out to be something of a red herring is a) difficult to remove from the narrative, yet all the while establishing nothing that the film (already fond of talking) couldn’t address with dialogue; b) confusing as hell if you’re not paying attention. It’s not that it’s going at breakneck pace, but it moves from seemingly clandestine meeting, something’s up but we’re not sure what, a trip for a certain attempt at spying, things are almost immediately awry, a hastened attempt a departure, a shot in the back, people lose their jobs and if you’re not in for the long run you’re left thinking “What? Where? How? Why?” Because, for all its tweed coats, introverted gents and Received Pronunciation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does not give a crap if its audience is paying attention. If you’re coming into this one you have to bring a brain with you – a working one.

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.



Nick Prigge said...

Typically astute review. There is so much focus on whether or whether not you can follow the plot and, frankly, I don't even remember a great deal of the plot - I could generally follow it, or enough of it - but the film somehow DOES become more about the melancholy mood and these sad, quiet lives these men must lead to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

Paolo said...

Thank you for uploading that screen cap of Colin Firth with a bike. It somehow reminds me of him waving to Oldman during the Chirstmas party. It feel like his (their?) first real foray into the 'old white man' roles, everyone contributing to the gestural yet subtle kind of acting in the movie.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

With you one hundred percent. I think the sadness is all there in that scene your headline quotes, though it's another exchange I'm thinking of.
"Those were good times." "It was the *war*." A truly lost group, who got into "the biz" for the sake of England, and now find themselves at odds with the people they thought to be family. Great film.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick AW, thank you very much for that kind work. i straight up STRUGGLED with this review for days, weeks. i take too much time trying to fine tune these things. i love that you (and walter and paolo) are with me on the way the film is about the human emotions. it's just so sad?

i'm not the only one (vaguely spoilerish) who felt sad for a certain someone at the end, right?

Runs Like A Gay said...

Brilliant review, Andrew. Superb writing encapsulating the spirit and the feel of the movie.

Personally I felt a little sad for everyone by the end, an entire roster of characters all of whom lose a little something.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

ben oh, that's a nice way to put it, they all lose a bit of something, indeed. i'm slightly, (infinitesimally) discontent that it ends on smiley....smiling, but then i think that considering the character it's probably not that real, he's still sad.

Joanna said...

Every time I see that picture of Firth with the bike, I laugh. I loved this movie. Saw it twice, which helped me get past the "oh my god, there is so much plot" moment you have the first time you see it. Great review.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

joana that entire scene when they're ogling the new employee is sweetly funny, especially amidst all the madness. even though my review makes a point about it, i don't think regular movie-freaks like us would be that put off by the information in it.