Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Release Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

Tomas Alfedson, the man at the helm of 2008’s wonderfully atmospheric Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In, is back to direct an adaptation of John Le Carre’s acclaimed 1974 novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The intriguingly complex screenplay is penned by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. With extremely dense storytelling, comprised of an unconventional extended montage-style approach, this is a film that requires undivided attention from a viewer – but is certainly an engrossing experience well worth your time.

The plot is perfectly comprehensible, but the way that the script balances its characters, seamlessly blends timelines, and shifts between recounts, will likely leave some viewers lost in the murkiness and scratching their heads. A return will no doubt make everything much clearer. The characters are so interesting (flawed but evoking sympathy), and the production so calculated, that I feel like it earns another viewing. Overall, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not going to get your pulse racing (don't expect something in the vein of the Bourne films) but it does have some suspense, and some pretty unexpected revelations. It is a thinking person’s espionage thriller, with not the reclamations of nuclear warheads at stake, but the possession of incriminating information, surrounded by a stifling claustrophobic and paranoiac atmosphere.

Set in London in the early 1970's Tinker Tailor follows the hunt for a Soviet double agent at the top of the British Secret Service ("the Circus"). The film opens with a botched operation in Hungary, which finds Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) compromised during a meeting with a Hungarian general wishing to sell information. As a result of this incident, Control (John Hurt) and his closest comrade George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced into retirement. When news of a long-time mole in a senior role in British Intelligence is brought to the attention of Oliver Lacon, the Civil Servant in charge of intelligence, he brings Smiley out of retirement to investigate the allegations by agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), learned during an operation in Istanbul.

Smiley enlists the help of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and begins interrogating a several ex-employees who might be able to she some insight on the claims, also seeking out Tarr (who hides out in Smiley's home) and Prideaux (who reveals his true purpose of his mission in Hungary). It is revealed that Control had long suspected a mole and given the suspects code names: Percy Alleline (Tony Jones), who becomes the new chief of the Circus was named "Tinker", Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy's deputy, was named "Tailor", Roy Bland (Ciaran Hindes) was named "Soldier" and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) was named "Poorman". To solve this riddle, Smiley must covertly monitor his former colleagues - digging up past indiscretions and facing painful memories of his own past, while trying to protect Guillam and Tarr, whose lives are also placed in danger.

Alberto Iglesias, who also wonderfully scored Pedro Almodovar’s mesmerising new film, The Skin I Live In, turns in some brilliant work again. You can find an example of the score here. The choice of shooting location and costume and the intricate details present in the production design and set decoration are unquestionably the most meticulous and thorough I have seen in some time. Every object present in every frame has a purpose and wonderfully works to capture this post-war period. The grainy, washed-out sepia look of the film is also very intentional, giving the film a dark, remote and untrustworthy appearance. Everything feels murky and seems to be enshrouded in a thin veil of fog, perfectly accompanying the core mystery. The characters are very often confined in tight quarters and one particular room (with an interior comprised of gold-coloured wall padding) is especially interesting.

The way that images seem to melt into one another and continue to tell a story, despite the often near-absence of dialogue, is a tribute to the visionary craft of Alfredson and his editing team. While the camera does linger on the characters at times (and one notable example is the extreme close-up of Smiley as he recounts his partnership with Karla, a shady agent) most of the shots are quite short in length, shifting between the characters as they exchange, capturing only their most important activities and effectively utilizing dialogue as a voice-over to accompany the images. There is not a moment wasted here – and for such a complex web of tales, which had previously been adapted into a miniseries, it is impressively concise (at just over two hours). 

The only criticism I have is with the conclusion, which instead of being a satisfying reveal possessing the punch that the meticulous build-up has warranted, it is a blink-and-you’ll miss it reveal that is subtly inserted into a montage. For a film that is so methodical, reserved, and patient, it really could have had a few more moments that lifted the adrenalin. It is all resolved a little too quickly, leaving less of an impact than I expected. Smiley is such a compelling character, and the mystery so rich, that it remains engrossing, despite lacking 'action'. After all, it’s not an action-driven piece, but a character-driven one – and on this level it is more than satisfying, especially considering the strength of the performances. Looking through the entire ensemble cast, none of them are less than outstanding.

At the fore you have Gary Oldman – but Cumberbatch, Hardy, Strong, Hurt, Firth and Jones are all excellent. Each of the characters has varying levels of screen time. with a proportion of the film devoted specifically to each. Many felt like this was Gary Oldman’s year, but disappointingly, he has fallen out of Oscar contention. Though he is the lead, and what he manages to convey (world weariness, but extreme intelligence and a mechanical dedication to his job) purely through his face is extraordinary, he is the head of the ensemble. Even though he doesn't speak until well into the film (though so much is conveyed purely through his actions - rather than swatting a fly away with disgust, he calmly rolls down the window and sets it free) he remains captivating. For Oldman, an actor usually asked to conjure his 'great rage', this is remarkably constrained performance. 

Tom Hardy was astounding in Warrior and his ability to utilize subtle tics to suggest a shift between nervousness, paranoia, sadness and anger within the same sequence, is stunning. Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) has received a lot of acclaim for his work in Sherlock, but I am yet to be impressed with him before this film. He is fantastic. John Hurt (The Proposition) makes a lot of appearances in films, mostly providing voice-over, but he was perfectly cast here as ‘Control’, while Colin Firth (here playing a slimy and pompous womaniser) and Mark Strong (not a villain for once) were effectively against type.

There are plenty of reasons why this intelligent, sophisticated thriller is a must-see. If you're in the right frame of mind (not tired, and with a clear head) this a most rewarding cinematic event. If you're not, well, don't say I didn't warn you. January is always such a great month for film. Following up The Descendants, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hugo and The Muppets (which are all well worth checking out), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy won't be receiving quite the same Oscar attention (though it has just been nominated for eleven BAFTAS, and I hope the Academy recognise it for Adapted Screenplay and Art Direction at least), but it is a mighty triumph nonetheless.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. I might go and see this film sometime next week. I have a feeling I might not be able to keep up with it, but if I watch it in a cinema, there won't be any distractions. I felt like it was Gary Oldman's year, too, and it is sad that he has fallen out of contention. It makes me a little sad that George Clooney is getting so much love for The Descendants, because his performance wasn't one of the best I'd seen from 2011, and I'm sure that Oldman is better (sorry, wasn't a huge fan of The Descendants). And it surprises me that this film isn't getting much love in the Supporting Actor category, since they're campaigning 10 actors for it! That category is so weak, too.

    Anyway, I hope it does get some Oscar love, as I thought it would be a big player. Nice review!

  2. I really liked TTSS, too! Some say it might get confusing and it is boring, but I understood everything and I thought the pace was fine- not the best or the fastest, but still, entertaining! You should really see Cumberbatch in Sherlock, he is fantastic- just 6 episodes, it is worth it, trust me!

  3. With so much information being thrown at us, I wish that there was much more time for all of it to just sink in but I liked the fact that the film made you pay attention to every little detail as this story just kept building and building. Everybody here in this cast is great too, especially Oldman who perfectly brings this flick together. Good review Andy, as always my friend.

  4. I completely agree on the meticulous attention given to detail in the film. Along with Oldman's performance, that for me was the best part of the film.
    My biggest problem with the film was how distant I felt from the characters. I just had no feelings towards them... they were just there. And yes, the final reveal was a bit meh.
    Also agreeing with Aziza- watch Sherlock!!

  5. This is one I must watch it seems. Gary Oldman is one of my favorite actors and this film just appears to be perfect for him.

    I have been hearing very similar things about the difficulty to follow the plot, which is infused with multiple twists and turns, not to mention a lot of different characters, timelines and back-stories. I'm a sucker for these types of conspiracy-driven films and will certainly give it a watch very soon.


  6. @ Stevee - I think Clooney is locked for a nomination, and I liked his work, but I do think Oldman (and Fassbender - I saw Shame last night) deserve to be in consideration. Assuming Leo has dropped out of contention - then Oldman, Fassbender and Shannon will likely make up two of the spots. As for the film, it is dense, but not indecipherable. By remaining alert and paying attention, not difficult to do in a cinema, it all makes sense. I think you will find it rewarding. It is also some of the best technical work I have seen this year - The cinematography, editing, score, art direction and costumes brilliantly recreates the period - and this claustrophobic sense of unease.

  7. @ Aziza - I understood everything, but I was tired when I watched it. Can't wait to check it out again. I loved the complexity of the storytelling, and the pace (the melting together of the images). I will definitely check it out. He was excellent in this.

    @ Dan - Yeah, originally the novel had been adapted into a miniseries - which i believe is quite slow going. Sometimes viewers need the time to absorb what they are seeing, but there is never a dull moment here - and I think the extraordinary production design, and fantastic performances lift this above most of the other films I saw last year.

    @ Nikhat - Yeah, that is a feature that was a little problematic, and I also did think the film's end was a bit underwhelming. But watching it less tired, I do think I will appreciate it's subtlety more.

    @ Niels - I think you will dig it. I am a sucker for those sort of films too - and this one is much quieter and more reserved than most - but that's what makes it so damn refreshing. Thanks for reading.