Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(127 minutes, Focus Features, Directed by Tomas Alfredson, Rated R)
When one thinks of a spy movie their mind might conjure up images of exhilarating car chases and daring action sequences. Not this film. This is about real espionage. It is about highly intelligent men inside shadowy rooms and under immense pressure discussing, questioning and watching; always watching. Based on John le Carre’s 1974 novel, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” surrounds an investigation within the British Intelligence Agency, MI6, during the cold war. Control (John Hurt) is looking for a Soviet mole and based on intelligence it can only be someone very close to him at the top of the agency. The search is narrowed down to five men and we are introduced to them all one by one as the movie opens. The actors are some of Britain’s finest.
“Tinker” is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), “Tailor”, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), “Soldier” is Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), “Poor Man” is Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and “Beggarman” is George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Smiley is a respected, veteran member of MI6 who ends up leading the investigation. The title refers to a “Spy”, but unveiling that would mean revealing the mole’s true identity.
Author John le Carre has a few identities in his own right. His birth name is David Cornwall; he was a real life MI6 operative who was betrayed by Kim Philby, the British Operative who infamously acted as a double-agent for the Soviets in the 70’s. Le Carre’s novel, which redefined the spy thriller, was originally adapted into a 1979 mini-series by BBC.
The film beautifully portrays 1970’s London with textural browns and smoky, natural and colorless lighting. The visual style is established in the first moments. In a long serious opening scene Control tells Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) that a Hungarian General may know the identity of the mole. The lighting portrays Control—John Hurt—in a way that you can actually see the aging his job has done to his face. He is lined with creases and shadows and cigarette smoke billows around his every breath. Prideaux goes to Budapest to meet with the General, and potential defector. The plot unfolds through muted conversations in windowless rooms, hushed meetings in the vaguest of London’s nooks and a series of flashbacks.
The camerawork by director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter) is as much a character in this film as the actors. The camera is always creeping along at a measured pace, spying on the characters. The movement of the camera is so continuous yet at times imperceptible that it helps lift the viewer out of their seat and into the story. The audience’s view of the characters is often skewed by objects in the foreground—window panes, doorways, glass, spectacles, pillars, and even the other characters. We watch street conversations through a long lens from a great distance, conversations inside buildings are revealed slowly from outside looking in through windows. All of these aesthetic choices mirror themes of voyeurism, paranoia and deception which drive the film.
As Smiley’s investigation progresses, we see Gary Oldman truly flexing his acting muscle. He is courageously reserved in this role. His dignified, knowing way of communicating is so very interesting to watch. At times he does little more than blink or twitch or fidget and yet—we understand him. John Hurt is tremendous as well and Colin Firth is very good, but what stands out is the performance of Tom Hardy. He plays Ricki Tarr, a MI6 grunt who finds himself caught up in the investigation after falling for a target’s wife. His role is supporting and throughout much of the film he is a vehicle for exposition. Scenes which involve voice over played atop a flashback are intercut with him speaking to Smiley about what he knows. And for all of the beautiful imagery played in the flashbacks I found myself hoping for more Ricki Tarr screen time. Hardy’s ability to be patient and unique with his dialogue is excellent and he has that innate vulnerability that all of the greats have. Despite it being a limited role, I was struck by his performance.
Overall, the film was very good but not great. Excellent performances and camera-work can go a long way, but there were some issues with the script. The problem with adapting a novel is the density. A novel’s beauty tends to lie in prose and a character’s internal-conflict which carries the reader along the way as a complicated plot such as this one unfolds. But a screenplay has to be airtight. Here, there is a lot of information to get across just by virtue of the spy genre and the subject matter itself. Typically in these kinds of movies, there are expository scenes where the spies brief each other as a device to keep the audience informed–which this film avoided, for better or worse. The story involves many characters and multiple events that need to be kept straight in order to follow it and there were points that I was confused by the subtle allusions.
But I guess that is a nice excuse to revisit what is a very good film.