Thursday 26 January 2012

Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

The latest adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an immersive film: rather than just recounting a spy story, it creates a spy experience, the tale of George Smiley's pursuit of traitors unfolding through a thick and entrancing fog of war.

It's 1973, and Control (John Hurt), the head of Britain's secret intelligence services, suspects that the Russians have planted a mole near the top of England's spy hierarchy. He sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to try and uncover information that would reveal the identity of the traitor. The mission ends disastrously with Prideaux shot and captured by the Russians; Control is forced to resign and dies soon afterwards. Percy Alleline takes over as Control, surrounded by the ambitious trio of Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). One of these four is the mole.

The Civil Service calls in retired veteran spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to delve into the shroud of secrecy and try to unmask the double agent. He becomes aware of a Russian spy codenamed Witchcraft, cultivated by Alleline and his friends to impress the Americans. Except that instead of feeding Witchcraft intelligence scrubbed of value, one of the British agents is happily selling top secrets. Smiley has to lay a careful trap to catch the traitor in the act.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is constructed like a thousand piece puzzle, with only a few pieces visible at any one time, and the relationships between the revealed fragments always a mystery to be understood several scenes later. Director Tomas Alfredson demands patience, concentration and trust: although at times the plot is dangerously close to incoherent, Alfredson almost always manages to pull together a more understandable picture and uncover convoluted links when needed. But he does so only at the measured pace that real-world spies have to negotiate, rather than the artificially compressed time most movies default to.

Stylistically, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is all grim greys, dark browns, reflected light, and depressing interiors. Spies are uneasy under the bright lights, and Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema allows his cameras to delve into the heaviness of deadly uncertainty that exists in the corners of the intelligence world. There is nothing in the film's visual style that can be misconstrued as cheerful.

The performances are uniformly perfect, avoiding the flashiness that would stand out like a death wish in the spy world, and focusing instead on the "suspect everyone" ethic required for survival. The British agents need to guard against each other more than they need to worry about foreign threats, in a case of the unknown unknowns being far more dangerous than the known unknowns. Gary Oldman shines as the understated master spy George Smiley, navigating the maze of internal intrigue with the smoothness of a man who helped to build the maze. Oldman's screen presence finally grows up in this role, letting go the final vestiges of his odd young man persona and fully embodying a wily veteran who has seen too much of the ugly side of silent wars.

John Hurt portrays Control as a deeply weathered man resigned to falling victim to the multitude of knives about to be plunged into his back courtesy of his own team, his only regret not uncovering one final traitor before the end of his career. Colin Firth makes an interesting choice to slip into a supportive role following The King's Speech. Along with Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik and Toby Jones, they embody all that is dangerous about ambition in the spy game: too confident in their own career ladder climbing abilities to compensate for potentially fatal blindspots.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is intellectually challenging and visually engrossing: grown men playing deadly games in the shadows of war, clamouring after personal glory under the pretext of serving the best interests of their country.

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