Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Grade: 84 (A-)

Tomas Alfredson made a splash in 2008 with Let the Right One In, a Swedish vampire movie where the chilly environment was matched by the filmmmaking and characterizations. He follows that project up this year with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,   the latest adaptation of a John le Carre novel, master of the Cold War-era spy thriller. The man's novels often concern cold or solitary men in British Intelligence, alienated from the rest of the world. Few filmmakers working today are better-equipped to handle the subject matter.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a seemingly forgettable man. He is not particularly handsome, not particularly fit, and not particularly interesting. His wife has left him for reasons not immediately known, and he has been forcibly retired from the British Intelligence after a botched mission in Budapest. When Control (John Hurt), his former boss, is found dead, Smiley reopens an investigation that caused his exit: the chance that there is a mole at the top of the agency. It could be one of four men, referred to be the code names Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds), or Poor Man (David Dencik). He's assisted by right-hand man Petter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), an agent framed for treachery and murder. 

The film focuses on men willing to surrender their lives for the way of the West, their personal lives often in shambles. The actors all play their parts beautifully: Cumberbatch as one forced to abandon his one true connection to the outside world when things get too heavy, Hardy as a man who finds something worth living for in the field, only to have it taken away. It's Oldman's film, however: Smiley has more or less accepted his lot in life, where the younger men have not. He looks at any problems as a mild inconvenience rather than a major setback. Where the other men swat at a fly, he merely studies it. His relationship with his wife is at best distant. His raises his voice only once in the film, and then only slightly. Yet it's a performance of unbelievable power, where every gesture and slight difference in facial expression communicates what this man is going through.

Unlike most spy-thrillers, which would play up the suspense and paranoia of the situation, Tinker Tailor is a very matter-of-fact film, quiet until it needs to resort to violence (which itself is very cold and dispassionate). Alfredson suggests a combination of Hitchcock and Kubrick: an ability for great set-pieces lies beneath the chilliness, and when the suspense needs to kick in, he's more than capable of ramping up the tension. But Alfredson is mostly concerned with his very studied portraits of the men in their unforgiving environments: London and Budapest aren't as immediately uninviting as the cold locations of Let the Right One In, but everything is a bit askew, and no one looks comfortable in their world.

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