Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Dir. Tomas Alfredson

3.5 out of 5

Watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson's hushed adaptation of the seminal John Le Carré spy novel, feels a lot like eavesdropping on a clandestine conversation spoken partly in code. The exchanges won't sound so labyrinthine to viewers familiar with Le Carré's book, but for the rest of us, there's Gary Oldman. The erstwhile chameleon effortlessly slouches into the rumpled suit and thick spectacles of George Smiley, a British intelligence lifer barely forced into retirement before he is recruited to sniff out a mole amongst the highest echelons of her majesty's spooks. As a spy, Oldman doesn't cut the most impressive profile. He's more like a cop on the beat as he tracks down former colleagues and informants who know the circumstances surrounding the shooting and capture of a British agent (Mark Strong) during a mission secretly designed to function as a Soviet trap. Oldman pursues each thread slowly and methodically, his weary countenance seemingly incapable of registering anything but a neutral pensiveness. His inscrutability turns out to be his greatest weapon. Sometimes it takes a tortoise to catch a hare.

Yet as deliberate as Tinker Tailor aims to be, its non-linear structure and dense plotting make connecting the dots quite challenging. It takes intense focus to decipher exactly what's going on, and even then most mortals (the author included) would benefit from a second viewing. This is a movie that requires you to be your own detective, and is perhaps best viewed with a notebook or maybe even a tape recorder. I don't think the director or the screenwriters are trying to be oblique - that's just the nature of the film. It's a hushed story of secrets and deception that has much in common with Alfredson's meditative vampire drama, Let the Right One In, rationing key information until it's finally delivered in furtive, frigid whispers. (Though the excellent ending montage is a crucial exception.)

That this isn't terminally boring speaks to Alfredson's skill as a visual stylist. His sensibility is (what else?) unassuming, but he's found a story where it fits like a glove. Alfredson immerses the audience in his gloomy vision of the early 1970s, with drab government buildings and cluttered flats creating lonely silhouettes for characters resigned to a lifetime of suspicion and malaise - even at the office Christmas party. The characters meet a similar standard of dowdiness - save for Tom Hardy's roguish agent who is the first to blow the whistle - but this is often even less appealing than it sounds. With so many misshapen intelligence men in dark suits, it's hard to tell who's a real player and who's just there to fill out the police lineup. Tinker Tailor may be too impassive for some tastes, and it's never going to be mistaken as a work of pure entertainment. But as cinematic homework assignments go, this is one that makes for some pretty fascinating research.

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