Thursday, January 12, 2012

Glitter among the Chickenfeed: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Tailored to be One of the Best of the Year

     You can count on confusion setting in early in the run time of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 2011 film directed by Tomas Alfredson, (who surprisingly also directed the great Let the Right One In). It's the common--and correct--reaction: characters wander from one dreary place to another, entering a dark room or answering a phone, and the scenes deftly switch to the next just as--one would think--the previous scene was just beginning. It's an interesting technique, but it works beautifully in making the viewer realize what type of film he/she is watching: a paranoid story about confusion and espionage. Starring a subdued and wonderful Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, if you have a little patience and can understand thick British accents, a little gem of a film that ranks among some of the year's best.
     The plot is complicated for those who haven't read the the 1974 spy novel of the same name by John le Carre. I'll try and simplify the best I can: it's the height of the Cold War. A Soviet spy is supposedly embedded within the MI6 (the British intelligence agency). This so-called "mole" is (probably) one of six men who can make significant decisions at the top of the food chain of MI6, code named The Circus. The cast is incredible, a total who's who of great actors that are legends or are quickly on their way.
      Mr. Smiley (Oldman) has recently been forced into retirement, but accepts a job to quietly try to find out who is releasing life-or-death information. Oldman plays it calm and collected, but he's a man that cuts through all of the shit to get the correct intelligence. Smiley's partner, the young up-and-comer Peter, is an inside man who seemingly will do anything to satisfy Smiley. Peter is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, a face we'll sure be seeing a lot more of due to the fact that he will be the next villain in the coming Star Trek sequel. Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, and Toby Jones are also possible suspects. All of these great names, and still some of the best scenes of the movie are acted out by the (awe-inspiring) Tom Hardy, playing an on-the-run agent with too much information, and Mark Strong (great in The Guard) an agent on a fool's errand who may or may not have been assassinated.
     Before you get too excited about all of the potential for violence and chase scenes, let me warn you: James Bond this ain't. Where the 007 films create excitement through bullets, fisticuffs, and gadgets, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy creates excitement through harsh words, the threat of harm or torture, and tension that--like the film's fog, rain and dreariness--never breaks. The majority of the violence takes place off screen. This is a film about mood and words, where men in trench coats walk into rain-covered alleys and dank homes and have conversations and arguments that go in circles and never quite let you in on the secret of who the mole really is. It's the opposite of a terrible film such as Fast Five, which I, very unfortunately, viewed the following evening. 
     Among the heaping of praise, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does have some detriments: it's nearly impossible  to fully comprehend every event that happens in the film if you're not already familiar with the book, especially in the first third of the film. Soon after we barely meet the characters, many of them seem quite suspicious even though we don't know enough about them to have an opinion one way or the other. The cast is huge, and keeping track of names and locations doesn't quite become a chore, but it is certainly difficult nonetheless. Overall, though, the film works. Anchored by the calming performance of Gary Oldman, the amazingly realistic settings and tones, the exciting smaller roles of Tom Hardy and Mark Strong, and the tension that slowly fills every scene like rain in a clogged gutter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a puzzle of paranoia that I couldn't help try to figure out.     (A-)

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