Friday, January 6, 2012

A Spy Thriller Extraordinaire

I admit that I was a bit apprehensive about what my reaction would be to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. After all, I've seen too many spy thrillers that shift focus from one exotic location to the next while introducing a bewildering group of characters; all of this can make for a confusing and frustrating film experience. Happily, this film shows us what can be done with this genre when everyone - from the screenwriters to the actors, the director and all the technicians - have their batteries charged and work in unison to craft a superb thriller.

TTSS is based upon the classic novel of the same name from John Le Carré. Set in the midst of the Cold War in 1974, the story revolves around the fact that a Russian mole has infiltrated the British intelligence agency MI-6. A British Undersecretary recruits spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to investigate this issue; Smiley in turn persuades his assistant Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to do whatever it takes to find the individual who is passing secrets along to the Russians.

The screenplay, adapted by Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor (she died late in 2010), is a model in how to economize a complex story that has several plot lines. The film opens in Hungary with a botched assignment and then takes us straight into the "Circus", the nickname for the MI-6 group. We meet this small gathering of spies and see how their inner circle works; their meeting room with its soundproof walls a testament to their secrecy.

We also follow Smiley and Guillam, working from outside the Circus and meet a young British spy named Ricki Tarr who reveals some key secrets from his recent encounters with a Russian spy and his lover. Each character from Smiley and Tarr to Control (John Hurt), Smiley's former boss as well as Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), two members of the MI-6 inner circle are written with a beautiful clarity and preciseness.

Director Tomas Alfredson takes this labyrinth plot and weaves it into an absorbing thriller. By necessity, there are numerous scenes of spies sitting around talking about what their next move will be; these are not the most exciting cinematic situations imaginable, but Alfredson does an excellent job bringing out all the drama in these moments. His pacing is superb and I can only imagine that he was at least partially influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, especially in the way that he draws out suspense. Watch the scene in the opening moments that takes place in the café in Hungary and note how the director slows things down as he cuts back and forth between all the individuals - key characters as well as bystanders - that are present at this locale.

Alfredson's attention to detail - something necessary in a complicated story such as this - is impressive. A drop of sweat that lands on a table, the Undersecretary buttering his toast, a half-empty pack of cigarettes are all momentary images that help define the complexities of this story. This is a movie that demands your attention during its entire length, so every small piece of information that is presented could be a major clue in the ultimate revelation. How nice to see a film that respects its audience for its intelligence and then rewards them on so many levels.

Along with his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Alfredson gives us a world of dark images; moody grays, browns and blues are the primary colors here and it's the sensation of gloom that hangs over the lives of the characters in this film. We do see a few scenes of the spies at Christmas parties and such where they let their hair down for a while, but these are fleeting moments of frivolity in their existence. The everyday happenings of these characters is generally mundane, with only a few encounters among outsiders providing a bit of relief. The production design, from the meeting rooms to the research rooms to Smiley's drab dwellings enhances the solemnity and loneliness these men face and place us squarely in a time and locale that capture a sense of gloom among both these individuals and their respective governments.

Another important contribution is the film's original score, composed by Alberto Iglesias. His cue for the sequence near the beginning of the film, where we first meet the members of the Circus and see the environment in which they labor, is marvelous. Haunting and sad, this theme, written in a minor key, features a mournful passage for oboe and muted trumpet. It's subtle, complex and quite memorable - you may not realize it at the time, but it grabs you and stays within your soul. The music as a whole gives you a beautiful sense of the loneliness of the spies and Iglesias writes with the necessary subtleties needed; this is a score that never announces itself, yet it fits the film like a well-tailored suit. This is among the top two or three scores of the year and it has all the beauty and resonance of a Jerry Goldsmith score from his glory days of the 1970s. This is about as high a praise as I can give to an original musical film score!

The entire ensemble delivers an amazing array of performances, especially from Jones, Hurt and Firth, as well as Mark Strong as world-weary spy Jim Prideaux. But there are two actors whose work in this film must be singled out. As Smiley, Gary Oldman delivers a performance of uncommon discipline and subtlety. His character is a decent man, but one who is deeply flawed; adding to his mistrust of his fellow man is the fact that his wife cheated on him with a former colleague. Smiley is reluctant to let anyone into his world, the one exception being Guillam; in a remarkable scene in Smiley's living quarters, he bares his soul in a somber monologue about a flight he took years ago and what he learned during that situation. Oldman delivers much of this speech directly to the camera and it's a moment of quiet grace for his character.

Viewing the world through his oversized horn-rimmed glasses, Smiley seeks the truth, but makes for the realization that the majority of the individuals he meets are dishonest. He says what he has to say quietly, raising his voice only once in the film, always keeping his guard up. Oldman has been known for his quirky roles in the past (Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK to name only two); here he gives us a solemn, proud man who quietly and gracefully lights up the screen. It's an outstanding performance, the finest I have seen all year.

The other remarkable performance here is given by Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr. The brief episode of his character, who elicits dangerous secrets from a beautiful Russian woman, is one of the most engaging in the film and Hardy relishes this time on screen. We see the self-doubt in his face and hear the fear in his voice, as he knows that everyone is out to learn about his secrets. There's a seductive charm to Hardy's performance and the film's tone changes ever so slightly during his time on screen; Hardy has great charisma and his moments with Oldman are riveting.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a superb return to the spy film genre. Both a marvelously crafted thriller as well as a commentary on the mistrust and selfishness of individuals who indirectly affect the policies of their governments, the film is an absorbing, highly intelligent drama that is among the best of 2011.


  1. Excellent review. I am equally enthusiastic about this film. I especially liked the shabby atmosphere of the Circus offices which are more like a sterile warehouse. Everything seems to drab and gloomy. I also especially liked Hardy's performance.

  2. Yes, the world of these intelligence agents is far from a luxurious one, isn't it? Excellent job by the production design team.