Originally posted on Dec. 23, 2011
The gist: Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson produces a chillingly observed piece of atmospheric, economical, efficiently elliptical filmmaking, with the help of Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography that creates a hazy look and reptile-like camera movements, and with the help of a flawless ensemble cast.
George Smiley, a man of few words created by John le Carré, walks with measured steps as a thick wall of fog engulfs the whole street around him. Whatever he’s brooding over is incomprehensible, especially so behind those glasses and an impenetrable veneer of taciturnity he’s wearing. He returns home, but once inside, he becomes even more cautious. His imperceptible flinches, deliberate turns of the head, and lifting of a finger or two are hardly distinguishable and nearly buried in the shadows that drape over him. Even at home, he maneuvers with the same level of circumspection as he swims in a lake where he treads water as if wading through a swamp. Patches of light sneak in, but without quite revealing what Smiley has on his mind. His eyes behind the spectacles and tightly sealed lips register little or no emotion. Once the scene settles into a sinister mood, there comes either a knock on the door or the muffled footsteps of a visitor who has already let himself in, waiting to talk to Smiley.
Smiley listens, observes, meditates, and hesitates before he finally pipes up. He speaks and expresses as little in full-face closeup as he does with only the back of his head seen onscreen. But even then, it’s not difficult to realize that he’s paying attention, absorbing the information the visitor’s feeding him, and ruminating on its gravity. He’s always present; in a sense, he’s an atmospheric existence. It looks as if he’s assimilated into the atmosphere exuded by Dante Ferretti’s subdued, monochromatic set design and Hoyte van Hoytema’s grainy, hazy cinematography. Director Tomas Alfredson’s camera regards and investigates each scene about the same way Smiley does with his surroundings: it inches its way in, slowly pans across and scrutinizes the scene in a surreptitious and calculated manner, waiting for clues to turn up or inconspicuous objects in the frame to assume significance and lead to some kind of revelation, whether in broad daylight or in dimly lit houses and offices.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film adaptation from le Carré’s espionage classic of the same name. Each word in the title is a codename for each suspect within British Intelligence called “the Circus.” Tinker refers to new chief of the organization Percy Alleline; Tailor and Soldier to his deputies Bill Haydon and Roy Bland, respectively. And yes, there’s the spy, or "mole," the apparent catalyst of the story. Ostensibly, the movie follows a mystery arc with two operations—or shifts in power—bookending it: one is Operation Testify, a backstory and the cause of the former chief and old power’s fall, and the other Operation Witchcraft, a platform for the rise of a new power, Alleline et al. As the plot thickens, however, each of the characters is allowed a short but significant moment, either in flashback or in a one-on-one conversation with Smiley, unveiling the flip sides of their otherwise cloaked selves. The movie thus turns out to be less about finding the exit of a labyrinth than a deliberate illustration of the characters, their relationships, ideals and moral qualms.
In other words, despite its plot-heavy exterior, this Cold War-era thriller seeks to be a character study by forming a pervasively enigmatic atmosphere and integrating into it Smiley’s equally enigmatic character and the ambiguous nature of his profession. Structurally, it’s also a continuous interplay of regularity and gradual escalation, with interpolation of the repeated shots/scenes (e.g., a dumbwaiter containing intelligence, Jim Prideaux getting shot, Smiley treading water, Smiley entering his dingy house alert, the suspects’ faces flashing across Smiley’s mind, and a Christmas party or a “good time” where everybody feigns festiveness, trust and openness), and with a creeping penetration into the characters, as Smiley’s investigation simultaneously crawls forward. Also fortifying the regularity and slow-burn build-up is the use of parallels in the opening and ending sequences, the former smoothly phasing in the characters and the latter tracing their last moments, one by one, interposed with that “good time” flashback. For this, writers Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, as well as editor Dino Jonsäter, deserve much applause.
The efficiency and creativity of O'Connor and Straughan’s adaptation shine through not only in the aforementioned interplay but in their decisions to incorporate small scenes toward the denouement, which, albeit very subtly, expose the characters’ inner conflicts and reinforce such themes as self-interest versus ideology, personal sacrifices that have to be made, loyalty and betrayal, self-righteousness, and the questionable absoluteness of their nation’s ideals. Smiley once made the mistake of confiding in his enemy about his personal life, which supposedly sabotaged his career; Peter Guillam opts to end his relationship; Ricki Tarr, a low-ranking agent, while wanting to prove his competence, declares his intention to settle down because he doesn’t want to end up like Smiley or Guillam.
Dilemmas of similar sorts extend to Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux, Connie Sachs, and Toby Esterhase. None of these characters are morally innocent or consistent; they are deeply enmeshed in a web of obscurity and deception and a grid of power relations. Whatever they have done, they try to rationalize or stash away and forget about it, but it still haunts, and will haunt, them. They crave normalcy and try to socialize, but they find themselves arriving at the depressing truth that they’re, in the end, alone. As Alfredson’s lens infiltrates their façades, it discovers these agents, while armored with codes and secrets, live in fear of being exposed and not being able to trust anyone all their lives.
Aside from its atmospheric style and narrative idiosyncrasies, Tinker Tailor is also abundant in images of dubiousness and entanglement: foggy streets, misty windows, incessant smoking, clouds, veils, curtains, desk arrangements, spiral staircases, the checkered wallpaper of the Circus conference room, a frame full of bookshelves, and so on. Frame after frame, and shot after shot, are dense with such repetitive, intensifying images, the predominant enigmatic atmosphere, and the tension oozing from the characters inhabiting that atmosphere, which all culminate in a unifying sensory experience.
The cast is nothing short of stellar. Alec Guinness’s George Smiley is such a tough act to follow, but Gary Oldman presents an even more reserved, mysterious version of the anti-Bond. Mark Strong channels a scarred, a bit more expressive Jim Prideaux than his TV-series counterpart; Colin Firth a less sardonic, but more understandable, Bill Haydon than Ian Richardson’s. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam and Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr are meatier and more substantial with deeper subtexts. As nostalgic as Beryl Reid’s Connie Sachs, Kathy Burke’s quips, “I feel seriously underfucked,” possibly an allusion to these agents' collective psyche: feeling trapped in an air of directionless uncertainty, after all those years of dedication to serving what they believe is right at all costs.