British Period Piece Recommendation (Non- “Downton Abbey” Division): Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

After thumbing through various reviews of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), I realized that I fell within the roughly 50% that adored the film. Those in the other aisle not only failed to love the film, they simply could not stomach it. And the result of their discomfort could be universally found in one reason: Tinker Tailor is slow. Very slow. Even reviewers who lauded the film (and I am in that class) admit this.  Yet I see no reason why films cannot produce pleasing results even if they move at greatly reduced velocities. 

Directed by the Norwegian Tomas Alfredson, of Let the Right One In (2008) fame, and based on the famous John le Carre spy novel, Tinker Tailor is an acquired taste.  The essentials of the plot are not too difficult to grasp.  Rumor has it that a mole actively works within the inner circle of the British Secret Service, known as the Circus.  Recently retired/sacked George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought back to uncover this man, if he does indeed exist.  Yet within such a narrative that might invite frenzied and hurried action, I cannot recall a single frenetic scene. No one quickly dashes through a public square filled with pigeons or engages in well choreographed fisticuffs.  Beads of sweat emerge not through physical exertion, but from nervous tension.  Alfredson does a terrific job of building such tension by pulling back on the reigns rather than letting his horses trample through his shots.  One of the best spy scenes I have seen in years occurs when Smiley’s young assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), is asked steal a log book from headquarters.  Perfectly measured, the scene executes a wonderful level of nervous inaction.

One of the main reasons that I did not mind the frequency of inaction was that Alfredson put so much into the inaction.  I was impressed with his eye and style in Let the Right One In, and I am even more hopeful of his future endeavors based on what I saw in Tinker Tailor, his first English language piece.  Alfredson possesses an odd, distinctive style.  His scenes are perfectly cluttered with stuff: ashtrays, decanters, briefcases, notebooks.  His shots are beautifully rendered still life paintings of British professional class life in the 1970s.  Furthermore, Alfredson uses small, enclosed spaces, yet presents them as spacious on-screen.  Even his outdoor settings have people moving against large flat backgrounds that seem to press up against the actors and the camera lens.  Everything and everyone is being trapped or squeezed.  No one can breathe let alone escape. 

Alfredson explicitly plays into the film’s theme of vision and why people do or do not see what they should.  Many things remain hidden and out of sight, often because the characters refuse to see.  Karla, the ghostly KGB agent never appears on-screen.  We are only told that he is “short.”  Maybe he is too small to actually see.  Smiley wears huge spectacles, but cannot clearly see the damaging course that his boss is taking.  Likewise, Smiley cannot (more likely refuses) to bear witness to his wife’s infidelity.  Alfredson never allows us a good look at Smiley’s wife.  We are as blind as he.  Guillam’s male lover is similarly kept blurry and out of focus.  The personal is sacrified in favor of the professional.  Of course, the professional duties seem as personal, if not more so, to the collection of British agents than any other familial or romantic bonds. 

Alfredson also was also blessed with an exceptional cast.  (Many of the actors have obviously graduated to government work after being denied tenure by Hogwarts.)  I do not mean to dismiss Alfredson’s role, but with Oldman, Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Tom Hardy, and Mark Strong, Alfredson must have felt like Pep Guardiola managing Barcelona FC.  Role the ball out onto the pitch and let the lads do what they do best. Indeed, it might be utterly fair to claim that the this cast does nothing special at all.  Of course, average work from this lot is still pretty damn good.

Oldman was particularly impressive in his first lead role in years.  He begins as a rather old, doting figure and seems sad that he never made more of his life, personally or professionally.  Yet his quest to find the mole and redeem himself and his mentor, John Hurt’s Control (who is rarely in control), invigorate him.  Smiley becomes younger and stronger, more assertive and confident.  The final shot of Smiley assuming Control’s seat in the Circus seems perfectly triumphant.

It took Smiley a long time to get there, and it takes the film a long time to conclude (127 minutes), but similar to Smiley, I was rewarded by the slow pace.  Not every spy flick needs a shot of Matt Damon or George Clooney running around and panting .  Oldman and this crew can do just as well by conserving their energies for other tasks, like acting.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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3 Responses to British Period Piece Recommendation (Non- “Downton Abbey” Division): Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  1. CMrok93 says:

    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 Todd.

  2. Todd Hunter Starkweather says:

    Thanks. I really enjoyed the film. Oldman was terrific, and I really want to go back and re-watch “Let the Right One In.” I find something unique in Alfredson’s visual style.

  3. Pingback: Five Film Favorites: Five things I want to see during the 2012 Academy Awards Show | James River Film Journal

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