Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, etc.
“You weren’t followed?” Dark. Cold. Near colourless. The opening scene sets the film’s tone. The flawless production design brushed with shades of orange and brown transports us back to the grey skies of Cold War London. The atmosphere in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s masterpiece of espionage literature depicts solitude and evokes tense paranoia. You’re on your own, and you’re constantly under surveillance. The quiet soundscape is employed to deftly create great intensity. Most of the scenes are filmed through windows and panes of glass. Otherwise, they’re filmed in closed rooms filled with smoke and fear. The players are often in the open while the camera keeps its distance, then moves to track its targets, as if we’re spying on the characters themselves, who seem, in turn, vulnerable in such exposure. The film unfolds like pieces of intelligence information being collected: a location here, an identity there, an event is retold; one must decide whether each piece of information is genuine. The fact that John Le Carré - rather, David Cornwell - was once an officer of MI6 until his position was betrayed by the Soviet mole Kim Philby (part of the Cambridge Five), lends a sense of realism, if not credibility, to his work. Unlike the high-octane, glamorous, and morally righteous sphere of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Le Carré’s world of international espionage is languid, quiet, and ambiguous.
The same words describe George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Oldman’s Smiley is near invisible, yet completely commands the screen. The way he sits, how he walks, a slight pause before he speaks, and his voice when he does speak; all are restrained and measured. In fact, Smiley appears on screen in several different scenes, and it’s nearly 20 minutes into the film before actually uttering three words. If you follow his eyes, they will hint at something but never betray completely. Oldman reportedly modeled much of Smiley’s physicality on Le Carré himself. A man who can interrupt you on the street, and ask for the time, yet you wouldn’t remember him five minutes later. Oldman brilliantly painted Smiley as perspicacious, stoic, sagacious, and nearly indecipherable. A man immersed in the tension of the Cold War must remain unemotive, understated, and elusive, as he listens and watches all around him. Le Carré described Smiley as “out of date, but loyal to his time”. How true. And perhaps it is because of his stillness that we strive to notice his slightest motion. This, in turn, allows Oldman to transpose subtlety into nuanced and layered characterization.
Particularly, in a mesmerizing scene when Smiley and Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) share a drink in a darkly lit room, Smiley describes and relives a chance encounter with his distant Soviet nemesis, Karla, across the table to an empty chair. Alfredson’s choice to present a monologue in lieu of a flashback pays off dividends as Oldman offers a tour-de-force of acting mastery. Oldman allows Smiley’s mask to slip just slightly, before regaining composure. He reveals his sole vulnerability in an otherwise well-constructed armour: his devotion to his often unfaithful wife (who, in a deft directorial choice, is left off-screen). Smiley knows it’s his weakness, and he knows he unwittingly revealed it to an enemy. To say that Oldman’s performance is hypnotizing would be an understatement. Credit must also go to how fantastically Alfredson/Hoytema shot the scene, frame by frame. This leads directly into the next memorable scene, with Peter Guillam.
Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) has been altered slightly from the book, some may say this “personal” change is large, but not I. Guillam is initially seen as a flirt; he eyes every woman he passes. Not quite a skirt-chaser, but one could imagine that he can charm any woman, anywhere, anytime. Looking back, this façade is just so cruel. In a quietly devastating turn, Cumberbatch’s Guillam demonstrates the personal cost of the men who live their lives in the trade of secrecy and intelligence. Vulnerability will always be exposed and exploited. To be in the espionage profession is to live a life of solitude, “in the name of tacit dedication”. ”Trust no one” and “things aren’t always what they seem” are shields for their armour. What does that say then about Guillam following Smiley without question, and that Smiley followed Control?
In another change from the book, smartly interwoven with the main narrative is an entirely invented scene - flashbacks to an office Christmas party - reveals much and more about the players in a few fleeting seconds than other lesser films in reams of script. Unexpectedly, and with great irony, the entire floor joins a Lenin/Santa caricature in a rendition of the Russian national anthem in full merriment; one comes to understand the Circus and its officers. This is the world of international espionage. They live and breathe information and misinformation from the Iron Curtain so consumingly that they can regurgitate the lyrics, with near patriotic fervor.
The score by Alberto Iglesias is wonderfully complementary. It is haunting, lonely, tense. It is the undercurrent that - very aptly - quietly carries the film from one emotion to the next. It is incredibly effective in the anxiety-inducing scene when Guillam enters the Circus archives to retrieve information for Smiley. The score remains in the background but highlights a strong sense of urgency and suspicion. And in the moments leading to the identification of the mole, the score takes center stage, yet at the revelation, elicit neither shock nor outrage, but merely a sober sense of finality. There is no pomp and circumstance, no ostentatious ceremony, no gold star is pinned to any jacket. This is their profession. Languid, quiet, ambiguous.
Solitude and paranoia. Perhaps one begets the other. These men in the intelligence service are lonely creatures with muted lives. The victories are small, and often muffled. The losses are swallowed, endured.Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about loyalty, friendship, betrayal, and sacrifice. It is about what these men choose to safeguard, and what they choose to abandon, and ultimately, what these choices cost them. Some costs seem almost too high. Few films can create such precise and compelling mood with so “little”, a fine achievement in subtlety. Having read the book, I can’t say that the book is better. Nor can I say that the film is better. Certainly, the book is more comprehensive, and the characters in the novel are more effusive for Le Carré affords the reader passage into their private thoughts and impulses. Yet there exists originality in the film amidst the borrowed inspirations from the novel. This is rare feat. That’s a testament to its director and its cast. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is easily one of the best films in recent years.