DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Thursday 15 December 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) dir. Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Colin Firth.


By Blair Stewart

Espionage writer John le Carré created one of fiction's finer bureaucrats in George Smiley, a grey splotch of a man you'd think nothing of challenging to a duel until you've found he's outwitted you out of all your bullets. Forcibly retired from the early 1960's spy trade due to circumstances similar to the plotline, le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy rebuffed the good-times fantasia of Ian Fleming's James Bond series. Spy work in Cold War-era Britain was lousy business-Agent 007 never had to take a red-eye flight to East Berlin in winter, and he likely would have snapped and killed a few of his superiors from paperwork-induced boredom in the 'Circus' (le Carré's affectionate term for the HQ of the British intelligence arm MI6). In bald contrast to Fleming's more well known creation, George Smiley isn't a very dapper or handsome gent, and yet he's the dog to pick in a fight between the two. Smiley is gifted in memory and anticipation, all sangfroid calm, and loaded with connections throughout the branches of government intelligence-he's a worthy adversary for the the KGB foil of the Circus, the Russian spymaster Karla who hovers just out of reach.

Less a remake of the original BBC serial of Sir Alec Guinness' career-best Smiley, Tomas Alfredson's new release is more so its own stuffed adaptation of the book, compacting the spycraft jargon and labyrinthine relationships into a concise narrative that nearly satisfied my inner "Tinker" fan. Based on what they've managed to retain from the book the script by Bridget O'Conner, Peter Straughan and Peter Morgan has similarities to a clown car with enough space to successfully fit a full troupe.

Gary Oldman stars while looking as anemic as he did in Bram Stoker's Dracula, his Smiley having been shuffled off to early retirement when the operation to out a Russian mole within the Circus by his boss Control (John Hurt) nosedived. Despite Smiley's suspicions about Control's failed trap that devastated his department he can't nose around further until the appearance of the prodigal field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) on British soil confirms the Circus has indeed been compromised. Smiley enlists the help of other forcibly retired Circus staff (Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham) and his now-downtrodden former protege Peter Guiliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to reveal who's the fink among the bureau's top brass: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), with Control once having suspected Smiley as well.

While successful in Scandinavian film for some time Tomas Alfredson came to light in the (English-speaking) mainstream with 2008's Let the Right One In, his superb take on the John Ajvide Lindqvist novel linking a forever-pubescent vampire in early 80's Stockholm with a sheltered boy in need of schoolyard protection. Alfredson was not only competent enough to hire the correct technicians to believably recreate and capture the fluorescent plastic dourness of Eighties state housing but he also communicated a sweetly-creepy sense of adolescent love/lust between the two leads. As a director Alfredson is capable of establishing le Carré's mood of Red Scare secrecy through his expansive framing and chilly Scandinavian colour palette (this is his second collaboration with DOP Hoyte van Hoytema) while making do with his cast of a Murderers' Row of English acting talent who mostly fit except for Graham and Mark Strong performing while appearing unintentionally hilarious in 70's threads and hair - no fault of their own, it was just a lousy decade for menswear. Oldman, despite seeming to speak all of three words in the first thirty minutes, is nearly equal to Guinness as Smiley, especially in scenes of contained fury when he's interogating the culprits of MI6's downfall.

Despite Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy being finely made adult entertainment that's pretty much catnip for year-end 'Best of' film lists a few problems emerge: while the script's inclusions of period music is damn fine (Julio Iglesias's "La Mer", Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Second Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World") the score by Alberto Iglesias is underwhelming, especially in comparison with the use of Danny Elfman's 'Wolf Suite Pt.1' for the film's first trailer. Another problem is the choice made by director Alfredson in several instances to extinguish suspense from the film, particularly in the climax, which is an admirable approach to an anti-Hollywood spy movie yet still left me dissatisfied, the audience has been patient for two hours, might as well give them something. Overlooking flaws with the adaptation there's still a great deal of quality in quantity with le Carré old-school espionage classic, a Smiley's People follow-up to Tinker by Alfredson would be most appreciated. Karla would approve of it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens theatrically in Canada on Friday from EOne Films.

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