Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Film Review

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

On November 18, 2011 I did a Q and A with the director, the writer and the star of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, following the preview screening of the film. I was joined by Tomas Alfredson (director), Peter Straughan (co-writer), and Gary Oldman (George Smiley).  Until last minute travel complications intervened the group was also going to include Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones and Mark Strong. Although the Q and A was a private event for members of The National Board of Review I can say that despite the diminished size of the party the discussion was lively and I came away with a deep appreciation of the talents of the three men.

Review at National Board of Review web site

Originally posted on December 9, 2011

Thomas W. Campbell

“The story is a simple one. A king is toppled from his thrown and the rightful heir is cast into the wilderness. The heir struggles to find out what happened, and after a battle finally returns to take his rightful place on the thrown.”

– Peter Straughan, co-writer of the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John le Carré’s spy novels, many which feature George Smiley as the central character, have been best sellers since he left the British Foreign Intelligence in the early 1960’s. Recreating his own persona for confidentiality reasons, David Cornwell became John le Carré and began to publish a string of complex and memorable espionage novels, many which have been adapted to television and theater. The first screen adaptation, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starred Richard Burton and was directed by Martin Ritt in 1965. The first incarnation of George Smiley appeared the following year, in Call for the Dead, directed by Sydney Lumet and starring James Mason. Other notable film screen versions include The Tailor of Panama (2001, directed by John Boorman and starring Pierce Brosnan) and The Constant Gardner (2005, directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Ralph Fiennes). Tinker, Tailor was adapted as a British television series in 1979, pairing Sir Alec Guinness with the Smiley role. The first in a trilogy of novels that pit Smiley against a brilliant Russian cold-war nemesis named Karla, the second book (Smiley’s People) was produced, again with Guinness, but the third, The Honorable Schoolboy, never made it to the screen.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Gary Oldman as the master spy George Smiley, has been vetted by le Carré, who met frequently with the writers and director, and has an executive producer’s credit. He basically told them to make their own film – the series and the book have a life of their own – and that’s what Alfredson and his team has done. Tinker, Tailor is a stylish, intelligent and challenging film that does the spy genre justice – it dispenses with the pummeling violence of conventional espionage/action genre stories – each trying to out-Bond the Bonds and out-Bourne the Bournes – and serves up nuanced acting, crafty plot construction and sumptuous visual style that is both gritty and elegant.

The screenplay, written by the husband and wife team of Bridget O’Connor (Sixty Six) and Peter Straughan (The Debt, Men Who Stare At Goats), distills the 432 page book into a tight and engaging two hours. (The film is dedicated to Ms. O’Connor, who passed away in the fall of 2010). The nine main characters engage in a game of deception that tests the limits of loyalty – to country, to the concepts of good and bad, and to friendship on the most personal levels. Meanwhile the film portrays, in the most believable and stylish of ways, the lifestyles of the British Secret Service circa 1972.

Alfredson might seem an odd choice to lead this most British of casts through a retelling of one of that culture’s most enduring espionage novels. He worked in Swedish television for a number of years before making an international name for himself directing the exquisite and truly disturbing vampire film Let The Right One In (2008). The film explored the lonely lives of a 12-year-old girl (Lina Leandersson) who has been a vampire for over 200 years – and the socially isolated young boy (Kare Hedebrant) who falls in love with her. Set in a barren and frigid landscape, the themes of paranoia and secrecy neatly foreshadow the world of Tinker, Tailor. The visual style (spare locations, deliberately constructed shots that peer in unnerving and voyeuristic ways thorough windows and doorways) is created by Hoy Van Hoytema, who shot both films, as well as The Fighter in 2010.

Tinker, Tailor introduces a gritty clandestine world with the very first shot – then continuously pulls us deeper and deeper into the underbelly of the espionage class with each successive development. The film opens with a murky closeup of a dark wooden door that opens to reveal a tight shot of an unhealthy and quite feral-looking man (John Hurt), squinting with palpable mistrust towards the camera. This is Control, the head of the British Intelligence, who has invited the lean and handsome Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to a secret meeting. As Control leads them through a large victorian style living room cluttered with half open boxes, piles of unkempt papers and a general sense of complete chaos he ominously warns the younger agent – “Trust no one – especially anyone in the mainstream.” Somewhere in the distance behind thick walls slow dirge-like music plays – a disturbing backdrop to the underground mission. Prideaux’s is sent to Budapest with a false identity to bring back a communist General who possesses the greatest “treasure” – the name of the mole at the highest levels of British intelligence. When Prideaux attempts to carry out the plan it is a spectacular failure – and the result is the resignation of both Control and George Smiley (Gary Oldman), his right hand man – leaving four men to take over the reigns of Britain’s secret service.

Lost in the “wilderness” Control soon experiences a lonely death and Smiley drifts into the stasis of retirement, taking leisurely recreational swims, walking the countryside, finally finding the time to buy himself a new pair of glasses. It’s an isolated life – his wife Ann has left him (a recurring event in their long relationship) and he is now a complete outsider to the one thing he has dedicated his life to. When Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) a young agent known as a “scalp hunter” (British intelligence is filled with slang to describe it’s services) is sent to Paris he bungles the assignment then sends word of a possible mole – the event that draws Smiley back into the game. It takes almost 15 minutes of film time for Smiley to speak his first words (“You fired me, remember?”) and he initially refuses to return. But Smiley is loyal above all else – and comes in from the cold to avenge Control – and attempt to clear his mentor’s name.

There are multiple stories that play through Tinker, Tailor, all related to the themes of loyalty and deception. It’s a challenge for the filmmakers to keep them from getting too tangled – but the complexity of the narrative is also much of the pleasure. The central storyline is the question of the mole – has the Russian intelligence service, lead by the super spy named Karla, infiltrated the “circus” (as the m-16 inspired organization is called)? If so, which of the remaining men – the new “control” Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), the fawning Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), dapper playboy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) or the no-nonsense Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) – is a traitor to his county. (The name Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes from code names that Control gave to his suspects – in reality there were five names, including “Poor Man” – and “Spy” refers to Smiley, who was also a suspect). The storytelling is quite unrestricted; we travel to Budapest with Prideaux, to Paris with Tarr, and move back and forth between Smiley in his makeshift office, the four suspects in the privacy of their soundproof headquarters on the upper floor of the Circus, and Prideaux in his new identity as a teacher in a country boy’s school. We sometimes learn about events before Smiley – the Budapest fiasco – and other events are revealed simultaneously to the viewer and to Smiley through stories (flashbacks) – for instance Ricky Tarr’s mess-up in Paris that ultimately leads to the mole revelation. But the most important questions are left to be discovered by Smiley – the viewer knows no more than he does about the real intentions and inner workings of the four suspects. The nature of a good mystery is to accumulate and allow for the deciphering of well-placed clues – and this is the way that Tinker, Tailor is constructed.

Built into the mystery of the agencies’ infiltration are a series of character studies that reveal the corrosive effect of deception and betrayal. The script uses two main techniques to address this. The first is a flashback that is not in the original book – a holiday party that takes place before everything at the Circus began to fall apart. The scene is presented in three sequences that are spread across the film, each of them registering a different emotional tone as we contrast the past to what we are learning in the present day. Each of the main characters are present at the party, which begins as a celebration of innocence and community. Control playfully (but aggressively) scolds Alleline, who will become the one he most detests, Esterase and Bland seem to have dates who they share the evening with, Smiley is seen with Anne (the only time we catch a glimpse of her face), admiring his wife with the surrendering eyes of a man who is deeply in love. We also catch glimpses of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley’s right hand man, and Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), a confederate of Smiley’s who he will turn to later in the film. But alliances break down as the sequence continues, and betrayals of the deepest and most personal kind are revealed. Two people will have their hearts broken and another will reveal the beginning of a plan to deceive and confuse Smiley in a way that the master spy could never see coming.

O’Connor and Straughan create parallel scenes in the present that reveal the emotional damage to Smiley, Guillam, Prideaux and others – propelling the plot to the decisive moment when Smiley puts his plan into action. Guillam has risked his reputation by stealing documents from the circus then lashes out at Ricky Tarr, who he believes is a traitor. Later Smiley is sympathetic to his young assistant and invites him back for a drink. Thoroughly intoxicated, Smiley tells a story that goes back to the very beginning of the events that have so engulfed them in the present. He reveals that he went to Europe in 1955 to interrogate the man who would become Karla, trying to get him to defect. But it was only Smiley who talked, attempting to gain empathy by blurting out details of his own personal life – about his love for Ann and his own fears of losing her. Oldman lights up the screen by physically and psychologically descending into the darkness of his own heart – and the scene reveals critical clues about a weakness that allowed Circus, and Smiley himself, to be exploited. Peter leaves and must confront his own vulnerabilities – to protect himself from blackmail and manipulation in the hands of those who would hurt him. He brings to a sudden end, without explanation, a close relationship – deeply hurting himself and his companion. Cutting back to Smiley’s flat we see him relive, in the second flashback to the office party, his own pain at the betrayal of seeing his wife Ann in the arms of another man.

As Smiley pieces together the facts that led to the downfall of Control he begins to understand that he too was a pawn in the game that was ultimately being masterminded by the Russian Karla. To discover the Mole Smiley must also manipulate the players in the game using threats (Esterhase) and deceit (Tarr) to get closer to the truth. It’s a dangerous game he plays, but he is willing to risk his own morality for the greater cause.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy relies heavily on the relationship of subtle yet realistic acting, a rich and elaborately constructed visual style and creative sound design. The complete ensemble of actors, beginning with Gary Oldman’s restrained rendition of George Smiley – a man who seems to see everything and knows the exact questions necessary to extract the necessary truths – deserves recognition. Mark Strong, as Prideaux, is lean and strong like a young John Wayne, yet emotionally vulnerable. The final flashback to the office party is seen from Prideaux’s perspective and Strong’s performance, though just a glimpse and a reaction, is crucial to a full understanding of the dynamics between him and an old friend/spurred lover. Tom Hardy is a loose gun as Ricky Tarr, sexy, dangerous and looking for recognition. Toby Jones is like a little J. Edgar, convinced of his own rightness and unable to abate his quest for power. Colin Firth is elegant and secretive, his easy manners masking a tension that he finally releases in an emotional scene that also shakes Oldman’s normally reserved Smiley. Kathy Burke has a small but wonderfully developed scene as Smiley’s old friend at the Circus – exuding a passion for the past that transcends the normal definitions of nostalgia. And Benedict Cumberbatch, who redefines Sherlock Holmes in the current PBS modernization of the character, portrays a rare and effective loyalty as Smiley’s trusted assistant.

Alfredson and Van Hoytema, working with production designer Maria Djurkovic, have created one of the most visually striking and consistently interesting looking films of the year. The set designs, evocative of early 1970’s British interiors, are unsettlingly industrial (the large loft-like offices of the Circus, the orange sound dampening interiors of the isolation booths where the inner circle meet) and dark and subtly oppressive (Smiley’s office next to the railway stations). The wardrobe suggests the era and is also timelessly stylish. The spies are each well-dressed in neat suits of various cuts and colors – Firth’s Haydon is especially nappy in his attire. Van Hoytema’s cinematography feels original in a number of ways. He uses a high contrast and earthy color palette, which creates a tone of nostalgia and danger. As he did in Let the Right One In (beginning with the opening sequence in which we see young Oskar through the third story window, as though the viewer was on the ledge just outside the room), meaningful shots in Tinker, Tailor are often shot through glass. These include exterior windows, dividing walls in office spaces, windows built into the personal sound isolation rooms (a dazed Control is seen through his office portal after hearing the news of the Budapest disaster, seeming to recede into his own troubled mind as the camera slowly pulls back), and any translucent or transparent barriers that might suggest the gaze of someone trying to see what would otherwise be private. During the office flashback Smiley wanders through the large open space, looking among the revelers for some sign of his wife. Only when he gets to the glass partitions that separate the rooms from an outdoor garden does he gaze through the barrier and see her in the arms of another man. When Peter Guillam regretfully tells his partner that they must separate the camera sees the action through what seems to be a glass wall. This technique is combined with a consistent use of telephoto lenses to create a flattening almost claustrophobic effect, especially in the Circus offices and most remarkably on an airfield when Smiley confronts Esterhase in front of a landing airplane that seems to stop only inches away from them. The soundtrack, by Alberto Iglesias – who recently scored Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In – works hand-in-hand with the exceptional use of what seem to be period songs. Especially evocative are selections used in the office party sequence – “The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World” and particularly upbeat “La Mer”, performed by Iglesias, which wonderfully ties together the montage of events that conclude the film. In one of the most unnerving scenes in the film, Alfredson expertly weaves an old vaudeville number, “Mr. Wu’s a Window Cleaner Now”, filtered through a phone conversation, across a tensely constructed sequence in which Guillam is sent “into the Lion’s den” by Smiley to retrieve documents from the secret files of the Circus.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy tickle’s the brain on first viewing. There is a lot going on and the viewer is challenged to keep track of the numerous players and to put events perceived in fragmented and flashback form into chronological order – just as Smiley must do. If you have read the book – or seen the excellent PBS series – you will have fun sorting out what has been changed and what has remained true to the original sources. If you are coming to the film with a fresh eye you might leave the theater with a few unanswered plot questions. But that will only make a second viewing all the more enjoyable.

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