Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Tomas Alfredson‘s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” based on the seminal spy novel by John le Carré, is one of the best-looking films this year. The cold, brown-shaded 1970s British spy interiors look like a library on overdrive. The atmosphere is thick with a kind of erudite, sophisticated, adult miasma that reminds us that this is no dumbed-down American spy thriller. This is going to be about the subtle emotional interplay and off-screen betrayals of intelligent working men who have known each other for years. This is a film about pencil-pushers who, only occasionally on work assigments, have to put themselves in harm’s way. There is the occasional assassination, but more than that, this is about the ins-and-outs of office wonks whose everyday job is rife with danger. The very look of the film (photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema) lends itself into the very story.
I have read an interview with Alfredson, and he expressed an open distaste in most American action films that iterate clearly, and then reiterate even more clearly, every single subtle emotional arc on screen. He is tried of films that rob themselves of drama by making the finer points too explicit. His own spy thriller, then, does not give you all the details, and does not spell everything out for you. The film assumes you’re sharp enough to pick up on the subtle emotional hints, small side plots, and little dialogue-free scenes that lend to the film as a whole, and offer myriad possibilities for where the plot will go.
Indeed, Alfredson was so determined to keep everything subdued and implied, that for long portions of the film, it becomes downright oblique. There were long portions of the film wherein I felt completely lost, and wasn’t sure why certain characters were doing what, and I started to get the feeling that I missed something. I typically like labyrinthine crime plots (1997’s “L.A. Confidential,” for instance, is still one of my favorites), but I also appreciate a strong character study, or something perhaps a bit more showboat-y to get me through. I wanted just a little bit more from the film to be confortable.
By the film’s end, we have figured everything out, pretty much, and one can easily start piecing together what happened over the course of the film, but it largely requires some hard work on your part. I do admire this approach, as I admire any film that openly assumes the audience isn’t stupid. But dammit, I was lost. I think I need to see it a second time.
Which may be fine. The actors are all superb, and I greatly admire the suits. The well-fit, subtly-color woolen suits on the talented British cast are a costumer’s wet dream. You can get a lot from the characters based solely on which shade of brown they wore that day.
The story setup: George Smiley (Gary Oldman) was ousted from the British intelligence agency last year, along with his aging boss (John Hurt). At the time, Hurt asked Smiley to keep an eye out for a mole that may have infiltrated the higher-ups, and is one of three people. It’s could be the rancorous Scot Percy (Toby Jones), the large and threatening Roy (Ciarán Hinds), or the charming Bill (Colin Firth). Working secretly for him is the hardworking assistant Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). He also has the inside track on the possible Russian defector (Amanda Fairkbank-Hynes), who is under the auspices of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). There’s also a kidnapped-or-possibly-dead spy (Mark Strong) who has some vital information.
As the machinations of the plot become more and more complicated, there’s no chance to catch our breath, to recap, nor is there any outright expository dialogue. This is a film that requires some work from you. The metal heavy-lifting is all up to you. The assumptions are fine, and, like I said, I admire the approach, but – and call me a shallow American if you will – I would have appreciated more from the filmmakers. The acting was superb, and the photography was truly excellent. If I had read the book first, maybe I could have been more on board. Cliff’s Notes would have helped.