Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Further Thoughts: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011, UK)

Originally posted on Mar. 24, 2012

Further Thoughts on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

dir. Tomas Alfredson

"That was a good time, George."
"It was the war, Connie."
"A real war: Englishmen could be proud then."

In this John le Carré adaptation by the Swedish director, who reportedly grew up on 1970s British television programming, the tragedy isn't just that the real war is now completely a thing of the past, taking away the pride and sense of place that the war instilled in many Englishmen. It also lies in the inability of those proud Englishmen to see the futility of it all and, while constantly bemoaning the demise of the good old days in self-pitying mode, their failure to earn audiences' genuine sympathy. Embodying the antithesis of boat-hopping debonair masculinity, George Smiley, former operative, isn't so much introduced with fanfare as slyly revealed as one of the bureaucratic old boys caged in a room with checkered wallpaper. Alfredson pairs geometrically-patterned images with nostalgic grains and shades of sepia in crafting a matching look for le Carré's dense, yet fading spy world. The fastidious tendencies that the filmmaker and the writer seem to have in common render the movie chock-full of visual detail, but at the same time, frustratingly elusive.

Another token of its duplicity, Tinker Tailor's labyrinthine plot unfolds non-linearly but with a reasonable clarity. It makes sure that all the flashbacks depart from Smiley's point of view, or the POVs of his equally sad, secretive fellows. The scenes follow one another in an elliptical yet coherent procession, while the twists operate on varying levels. For one, its whodunit appearance does not lead straight to a satisfactory reveal, but culminates in an anti-climactic revelation. This, then, necessitates the whole story to be reflected upon from its beginning; filling in the blanks; and extrapolating on the audience's part. The long lenses, flattening the image throughout, also lend the scenes an emotionally distant, plastic quality.

Saddled with the most migraine-inducing task of rewriting the notoriously complicated novel, writing duo Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan chopped it up and rearranged the pieces into a compact script. With the source's essentials unaltered, this adaptation contains new flashbacks--notably those of a Christmas party, in which a cozy masquerade contradicts the emasculated frigidity of 1973 London. The plot pieces then coalesce into bigger chunks, commensurate with the phases of Smiley's flushing-out of the mole: Smiley's retirement, followed by emergence of intelligence on the mole, commencement of the investigation, individual stories, more investigation, mystery solved, and finally, Smiley's return to the Circus.

The chunks then become a causally linked whole, where the gaps deliberately left contribute to the movie's elliptical nature. Such ellipsis is achieved precisely by withholding vital information for brief moments. Still, certain repeated shots or scenes more than just compensate for those glaring gaps. Take, for instance, the chessmen, one of which Control, former chief of the Circus, associates with each suspect. When Smiley stumbles upon those chessmen early on, the camera pulls a rack-focus between them, but halts right before revealing who the last piece belongs to. Only a flashback later does the photograph taped to it turn out to be Smiley's. The chess clues, along with shots of Jim Prideaux gunned down, recur now and then until the final Prideaux-Control rendezvous, gradually unveiling the true nature of Operation Testify.

Besides the interplay of ellipsis and excess, Tinker Tailor offers other intriguing ways to command attention. To create the watch-your-back sort of tension, it exhibits subtle variations on the continuity editing style. In the opening Budapest cafe sequence, Jim Prideaux, on that disastrous Testify mission, becomes increasingly alert, as the camera captures him in close-up and then scans the surroundings as dictated by his gaze. A couple of scenes later, when Control and Smiley leave the Circus (semi-)permanently, a distance shot of the MI6 building comes first before Control's wearisome figure appears in medium shot.

Unlike its source material, Ricki Tarr's story is placed at the midpoint after his arrival in London has triggered the mole hunt. When he confides in Smiley alone, the two remain seated throughout, face to face, and the conversation sequence operates strictly on the shot/reverse shot structure. Whatever the old spymaster thinks of the heedless low-ranking agent is unknown, but the two's eye-level exchange in close-up implies that Smiley's intention is to actually listen, reserving judgment. Compare this with a later confrontation in an airfield between Smiley and Toby Esterhase, one of the suspects. The camera moves more fluidly, yet it gradually closes in on the two, tightening the space between them and the plane landing behind.

Also notable is how Alfredson coordinates elements of repetition and escalation. The said chessmen are a striking example; each time they resurface they furnish further information advancing Smiley's inquiry. And that vignette of Prideaux's collapse not merely reiterates with gunshots ripping through the silence engulfing the arcade, but it also anticipates the victim's re-appearance with more story behind the foiled mission. Consider Smiley's Christmas party recollections: the first party scene hints at his burgeoning suspicions about his wife's infidelity with Bill Haydon, and in the second, the lens becomes Smiley's surrogate as he virtually freezes upon confirming his doubts.

See also the railway tracks looked down from a hotel room where Smiley lodges, and Tarr's voice recording, "Everything the Circus thinks is gold is shit," or the real "crown jewel," which he relays to Smiley from his Russian lover Irina. The tracks are introduced in a short cutaway at the outset, and Tarr's voice lurks in the background at the midpoint. After that, between fleeting inserts of the tracks and trains, Tarr's message lingers as fuzzy ambient noise as Smiley strolls or sits lost in thought. Then in a climatic scene, where all the puzzle pieces start snapping together, the tracks converge with a screech just before the screen resounds with Tarr's voice like a thud. With such an interlaced patterning of repeats and crescendos, the movie progresses with an impeccably orchestrated rhythm.

Tinker Tailor's overarching theme is none other than betrayal. It concerns the mole's treachery both of the system he served and of his friends and lover. The latent sentiment existing among these spies is that they have been betrayed by the very establishment to which they pledged allegiance. Connie Sachs is one of the dismissed agents, "chucked out on the rubbish heap," but she clings to the memories of the good time when Englishmen could still be proud. Ricki Tarr, a mere scalphunter, risked his life to prove his loyalty and competence but is accused of having defected. Meanwhile, Control's patriotism fails to save him from the scheme masterminded by his (and Smiley's) Russian nemesis and the mole who burrowed through the cracks of bureaucratic corruption.

Ultimately, though, it's the mole who turns out to feel most deceived all along. He harbors such resentment that he barely bothers to give up the rationale behind his betrayal, except, "It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become... so ugly." It recalls Smiley's earlier flashback when Bill Haydon, an amateur artist, dropped his abstract painting at Smiley's, and the last shot of the opening credits scene, where Smiley fixates his attention on the painting. The information that one of Haydon's many identities is an artist does not come out of nowhere, but is drip-fed from the beginning of the story. The film provides no specific reasons for his double-dealings, whereas the book has Haydon rattling them off one by one, down to the very year he became a full-fledged traitor. Instead, a still close-up of Haydon's face exhibits by turns disgust, guilt, and eerie self-assuredness, as he answers Smiley's questions.

The traitor's last image of him lying dead on a bed of leaves conjures up the shots of almost-dead Prideaux in Budapest. Feelings of resignation and impotence percolate through the final moments of the former agents. Connie Sachs forlornly stares out of the window and Ricki Tarr futilely waits for Irina in the rain. Smiley, back at MI6 reclaiming Control's seat, puts an end to the short-lived coup by Percy Alleline, nominal ringleader of Witchcraft. Smiley's victory is hardly a beacon of hope for the waning empire, which once ruled the waves, but is now making way for another budding superpower. Audiences know so well how this particular chapter of actual history went down that the applause at the end of Julio Iglesias's "La Mer" sounds like a big fat irony.

Tinker Tailor chugs on, loaded with autumnal hues and melancholy. Hoyte van Hoytema's camera constantly inches its way in, slithers back, slinks laterally. These moves are so understated that one might easily dismiss them as idle. But the real thrills are supplied by the rhythmic engineering of the movie's narrative blocks, prompting strenuous inference-making. Through such stylistic devices and plot organization, Alfredson presents an ostensibly--and deceptively--romanticized group portrait. Yet simultaneously, even his treatment of these second-best agents en route to oblivion, however superficially nostalgic, does not warrant much sympathy, let alone empathy. Our proud old boys (and girl) are still so preoccupied with their past glories, yet so consumed by paranoia that they are incapable of seeing the world after the sunset.

*Disclaimer: I do not own any of the images above. 

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