Saturday, February 04, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

[Note: I am going to try to avoid too many spoilers in this review, despite what the next paragraph will say]

Here's what I would have to say about the new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: watch it twice, or go and read the plot summary before you watch it. As with certain other forms of art (opera, Shakespeare, sporting events), TTSS can't really be appreciated on the first go-round unless you know what is going on.

Based on a John le Carre novel, TTSS manages to cram an enormous and windy plot into a two-hour film, and is one of the few adaptations that I would say needed to take more time to explore everything (the 1970s BBC adaptation with Alec Guinness was a seven-hour miniseries). The writers were very spare with exposition, and while everything you need to know about the plot is in the film, it's often hidden in inside jokes, in oblique dialogue, and in the aftermath of the action. You need to pay very, very close attention to everything that is going on, and I really don't know if it's possible to "get" everything without knowing something about the film first.

Case in point: towards the end of the film, one character is flush with triumph and another is devastated, but the whole situation is not mentioned or shown, other than a single, five second scene where one of them walks out of an office and passes the other, walking in. There's a beautiful look between the two of them that communicates what's gone on, but if you haven't paid close attention to the context, it just looks like one of them ate a bad egg with his salad and the other one is late for work.

Why is that? Well, TTSS is filled with characters who are intensely private, personal, paranoid, and political- the emotions and thoughts they carry are almost always veiled, and we have to work to decipher them. So the acting is layered, and so is the script, which disdains things like exposition. Instead of telling or showing us what happened, the film shows us the setup and then the aftermath, forcing viewers to really work to figure out what is going on in each scene, much as spies are forced to analyze and deconstruct the world around them (example: the scene that ends with one character bursting into tears at what he's done).

*WHEW*. I think every undergraduate art student and philosophy major just had a little moment of ecstasy there. "Look at how brilliant and subtle the symbolism in this film is! The rubes won't get it, but because we  do, we're special!!!!!"

I, personally, am a big fan of clarity- real life is murky and unclear enough, thank you. As the famous Mr. Orson Scott Card says, "Anyone can write a story that's hard to decipher". While I don't need my films to spoon-feed me, I do expect films to stand on their own. What frustrates me is that TTSS seems to take this desire to have all the action and exposition offscreen a little too far, to the point where powerful moments feel hollow because we don't know enough about the context and have spent too much time trying to remember which character said what when.

Furthermore, because the film is so short (relatively speaking) and condensed, it feels like we're watching half of a movie, or the deleted scenes of a much longer movie. Important scenes and important relationships are reduced to significant glances and obfuscated remarks. If you go in with no idea who the traitor is, you'll figure out because he gets the most screen time of all the suspects- there wasn't enough time in the movie to really flesh out all of the characters, so the one with the most backstory is the one whodunnit.  

And yet, if you can get past the waves of giddy film critics, TTSS is really a well-made, well-acted, enjoyable film. There isn't a weak link in the cast; and while Gary Oldman (as the protagonist Smiley) and Colin Firth have gotten the most acclaim (Firth in particular has an Oscar-worthy showpiece monologue towards the end), the supporting cast knocks each and every character out of the park. In particular, Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guilliam and Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux are impressive for their ability to make you forget about their previous roles altogether and embrace the characters they've created. The administrators are all appropriately pathetic and slimy, as portrayed by Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, the aforementioned Firth, and Toby Jones with a brogue (while three of them get the short shift, I particularly wish that Jones had had more screen time). John Hurt doesn't have much to do as Control, the former M (or C, or whatever) of British Intelligence, other than one wordless moment in his office when he hears some bad news.

There are a number of scenes that are beautiful in the way they convey the simmering emotions that lie beneath the well-mannered stiff-upper-lip surface, and they contrast well with the (relatively) open and charismatic performance of Tom Hardy as rogue-ish agent Ricki Tarr, who narrates the middle third of the movie and sheds light on the first third (which goes otherwise unappreciated). And then there's Gary Oldman as Smiley.

One commenter I read said that he seemed "wooden", and it's hard to tell whether that quality is his performance or in the script itself. Smiley, after all, is a milquetoast, passive-aggressive, still character, and so there's not a whole lot for Oldman to work with. To get a read on it, I went to YouTube and looked up Sir Alec Guinness playing the same part in the BBC adaptation. Once you've seen TTSS, take a look at these two clips:

Smiley and Karla's conversation in Delhi (shown as a flashback in the adaptation and an anecdote in the film):

Smiley breaking Toby Esterhaze (the airplane scene from the film):

Guinness is brilliant. His Smiley radiates an aura of knowing menace that underlies his every word. He is a charismatic spymaster, quite like Gandalf (or for that matter, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope). You get the feeling that though he's retired and out to pasture, he used to be a nightmarish figure to his counterparts on the Soviet side of the curtain, and probably still is.   

Oldman, on the other hand, is given a different context to work with. His Smiley struggles more: with social interaction, with his retirement, with his unfailing devotion to his contemptuous wife and contemptuous country. But it's all hidden  behind his all-business "wooden" facade. Oldman ratchets down the level of energy he normally brings to roles (think "Commissioner Gordon", not the best role he ever played), and so it's quite shocking when, several times through the movie, Smiley's affected mildness breaks down and we see what's really behind there. It would be interesting to see what Smiley would have been like had he been raised in a different system (not the Circus), where he didn't survive by patronage and passive-aggressive action. I think he would have turned out more like Angleton, but anyways.

It's a good film, but a frustrating one. Call it Four out of Five moles caught.

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