Tomas Alfredson impressed me, and many other horror fans, with his debut picture, “Let the Right One In.” So I found myself excited for his next film, and English language debut, “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” even if straight-laced espionage flicks aren’t really my thing and it had a ridiculous title.
On a strictly visual level, Afredson impresses with this newest film. The snowy, freezing Swedish winter infused every frame of “Let the Right One In.” “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy” is similarly chilly in a different way. A stone-cold atmosphere of paranoia, deceit, and discomfort hangs over the entire movie. Every person operates in a guarded manner. The film certainly puts the “cold” in “cold war.”
Moreover, there’s some wonderful shots in the movie. Twice, the camera pulls back between the frames of a window, disorienting the viewer. There’s the reoccurring shot of a file riding a dumbwaiter up through a building. This visual motif seems to pay off near the end when an elevator door opens behind a man, revealing another man standing behind him. Overall, this is a fantastically shot film. Just as the studied, stern men of the movie control every thing they do, every shot is similarly calculated and controlled.
The story is a bit hard to follow. The basic premise, of a veteran British intelligence officer trying to sniff out a deep-set Soviet double agent, seems simple enough. However, there’s a lot going on in the film. Spy lingo, like “Control,” “Circus,” “Witchcraft,” “Karla,” not to mention everyone’s names, are thrown around with little explanation. There’s a number of flashbacks woven throughout the story too, some of them popping up unexplained, to the point where it’s not always easy to figure out what’s happening in the present. The majority of the spying and investigating in this film has more to do with people sitting in rooms and talking to each other then it does with shoot-outs. All of this is excluding the fact that, by the nature of the story, there’s just a lot of back-story, investigating, dead ends, red herrings, and false fronts here. So this is definitely a movie that demands your attention. Even if you’re paying close attention, there’s still some stuff you’re likely to miss. Apparently, labyrinthine plots are trademarks of John le Carre’s source novels.
When you can see through the fog, the story is quite captivating. It’s easy to get involved in all the twists, turns, and reveals, even if you don’t always follow it. In particular, a climatic scene of a man with important information slowly cracking under the subtle, screw-turning pressure of hero George Smiley, is quite good. The resolution wrap-up montage are set to the original French version of “Beyond the Sea.”
Mark Strong’s character is vital but is only in about a third of the movie. The scenes of him working at a secluded British prep school are fascinating, while the short sequences of his brutal interrogation at Soviet hands is quite harrowing without showing much. In an interesting move, there are reoccurring flashbacks to a Christmas party at British Intelligence, showing George Smiley and his co-workers in more disarmed moments.
The cast really holds it together. It’s movies like this that make me wish the Oscars had a Best Ensemble category. This is an all-star list of British thespians. Gary Oldman, frequently so big, is mild-mannered, quiet, terse, controlled, even ordinary, as protagonist Smiley. He is a master observer, always watching his fellow man. For clues? Or is it just in his nature? In addition to Oldman and Strong, other great actors like John Hurt, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, future Batman villain Tom Hardy, and the man with the most British name in the world, Benedict Cumberbatch, round out the incredibly capable cast. This is a straight-up espionage thriller. It doesn’t take a lot of time to examine the morality of spying or the humanity of the men who do it. It’s up to the actors to suggest and hint at such things.
Considering all the award buzz it received, I was a bit surprised to find out “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy” is such a pure genre exercise, albeit an incredibly restrained one. It’s not light viewing but does provide plenty of thrills of a very cerebral nature. (7/10)