Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

See paragraph three

With this adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, Tomas Alfredson has set himself the unenviable task of squeezing a notoriously labyrinthine plot (later reworked into a seven-part television series) into two short hours of cinema time. For a Tinker Tailor virgin, watching it is not unlike the initial experience of watching The Wire: finding one’s bearings, working out relationships, and coming to terms with the particular language involved. In this case it’s not street slang but code-words, like ‘control’, ‘the circus’ and ‘Karla’, on which no elucidation is offered. It’s a slightly distracting puzzle, and makes you want to watch the first hour again.

The film is beautiful – all dusty rooms and smoky corridors, yellows and browns and three-piece suits – and contains a masterful performance from Gary Oldman as Smiley, the retired MI6 agent tasked with uncovering a mole amongst his former colleagues. His is a face you could watch for hours – and Alfredson seems to agree. One memorable moment sees a whisky-fuelled Smiley reliving a former encounter, the camera settled on full facial close-up – one eye obscured by the shadow of his thick-rimmed glasses; the other glinting, expressive; thin lips offering the merest hint of a sneer.

The ‘frames’ of these glasses provide a motif which Alfredson uses in countless other shots, presenting the action through lace-curtained windows or half-opened doorways, repeatedly partially obscured. He’s unafraid to show us characters walking away, or the back of people’s heads. Two of the most important figures in Smiley’s life, his main adversary in Russia and his estranged wife, remain unseen throughout. This is a murky world to which, emphatically, access is not ours.

It’s curious for an ostensible ‘whodunnit’ to expand so little on the very characters (tinker, tailor, etc.) who drive the plot by being under suspicion. In fact, their portrayal by such a stellar cast is about the only thing that helps us distinguish between them – and when the culprit finally is revealed, the moment delivers surprisingly little narrative punch. Perhaps that’s the point: it’s not really about the discovery, but Smiley’s journey – but then I have to admit I was also unsure about what exactly he’d learnt from the experience, or how he’d grown. So perhaps that’s the point, for those unacquainted with the book, at least: this highly stylised visual accompaniment will remain – like Smiley himself – a quiet, elegant enigma.

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3 Responses to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  1. rich says:

    Should have done a Mesrine and made it in two parts, I believe. Enjoyable as far as it went but felt really rushed and I needed Dad to explain quite a lot afterwards (a reflection on me, no doubt, but still). As you say, the ending was a little odd and didn’t really feel like it made a lot of difference (I’d assumed they were all in on it) and it felt a bit too fuzzy. Appreciate that confusion was the name of the game but would have liked a little more development.
    Also noticed the windows.
    I thought Smiley’s journey was supposed to be redemptive, although I’ve forgotten what for now.
    Enjoyed a lot of the performances, and wore suit, tie, briefcase and raincoat to work on Monday (raincoat discarded at the last moment owing to good forcast).

    • JamieR says:

      Ha! Good effort. Pen says she always feels like walloping people on the way out of X-Men but I think I might prefer your version.
      Hadn’t thought of two parts, but yes. There were certainly enough ideas in there to sustain it.

  2. chopper68 says:

    Thanks for the tip off on this. Went to see it Friday afternoon, probably the first “grown-up” movie I’ve seen in a cinema since having kids, and throughly enjoyed it.

    My memories of the TV series were of a slow building atmospheric thriller and it seemed that Alfredson wanted to achieve the same feel. I think to some extent that detracted slightly from the pace of the plot but then it seemed the key motive behind the film was to revel in the performances of some brilliant actors. Oldman was superb and his Alec Guinness impersonation was 100 times better than Ewan McGregor’s.

    The cinematography was interesting. I was expecting a more high-def experience but there was clearly a deliberate decision to use a less focussed seventies style. I did find it hard to distinguish at times between the flash backs and the current time lines but other than that revelled in the ambiguity of the story line. I hope he does some more Le Carre tales with the same cast.

    I also left the cinema feeling like a spy. Spent the journey home observing everything and everyone with a suspicious eye.

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