Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (film review)

In keeping with my just-invented policy of only giving a considered opinion and never writing an off-the-cuff review of something just because it happens to be central in today’s hype machinery, this is what I thought of the recent film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is now available to rent or buy on DVD.

I watched it twice, actually, so concerned was I to give it a fair viewing. You might watch a film twice because you enjoyed it so much the first time. I watched it twice because I found it so boring the first time I barely paid attention to it.

I kind of knew the story, having read all of Le Carré’s Smiley books and having watched the TV series if not when it was first broadcast then more recently on BBC4. As a general rule, I like the spy genre, with all its convoluted hall-of-mirrors logic and slow burning plots. Smiley is a character prized not for his charisma but for his brain, his thinking ability, and you’ve got to get behind such a hero.

But from the opening, with its muted trumpet soundtrack, I found I wasn’t really in the mood for this, and then I wondered if I would ever be. I decided it was a sort of Sunday afternoon film, so I waited until I was on my own on a day that felt like a Sunday, even if it was a Tuesday, and I watched it again. I felt much more warmly towards it the second time around, but that’s not to say that this film isn’t still a bit dull.

On my film blog, I discussed the recently-elevated Vertigo in terms of the way it bored you in its first half in order to spring its abrupt mood change in its second half. I stand by the idea that Vertigo is a bit boring (especially to an audience of teenagers raised on Transformer movies and Pixar); but that Hitchcock uses boredom as a tool with which to manipulate the audience. So the question is, does Tinker, Tailor use boredom as a tool in the same way?

Muted trumpet might as well be muted arse trumpet to me. I’ve gotten into a really bad habit in recent years of only paying half attention to the TV. There’s always something else in my hand or on my lap. I’m on Twitter, or I’m playing a game. Even on shows with subtitles, I tend not to be watching the screen for long chunks of time. This is a mistake with a film like this, because it is a proper film in that it’s taking the pages of dense exposition and the inner thoughts of Smiley and it’s putting them on the screen in the mise-en-scène or in the edit.

Elliptical edits characterise this film. Not in the form of jump cuts (though there are a couple of those), but in the form of abrupt scene shifts. As soon as a scene has done its work, the director gets out of Dodge as quickly as possible. This isn’t Tony Scott-style rapid editing, and you might even come away from the impression that this film likes to linger on details, but what the director is doing is giving you just enough information and then moving on, with a whole lot of the usual 21st century filmmaker’s over-explaining missed out. Good. Instead of “getting the picture” in a single scene, you need four, five scenes in a row before you can start to puzzle things together.

In other words, you are Smiley. And you’re not bored, you’re solving a chess puzzle.

So you have to pay attention in order to work out what’s going on. I know some critics complained that only readers of the book would be able to follow the plot, but I don’t think so. You have to pay attention, and you have to observe as closely as Smiley does, but you can indeed keep up with the story without having read the book. After all, it’s quite simple. The British SIS is harbouring a Russian agent in its upper echelons, and Smiley has to work out who it is. The answer is staring him in the face, which is the central point of the story – how he can be blind to the obvious truth, but only “to a point”.

Where not paying attention might get you lost is in the liberal use of flashbacks and in the clues as to when and where you are being left entirely to the mise-en-scène. Smiley-in-the-past is wearing different glasses. This is important. But you get less help with Jim Prideaux, who doesn’t wear spectacles.

The film is lit nostalgically, reminding me of that Channel 4 series Red Riding (like someone has stretched a pair of tights over the camera lens). Everything looks brown, which seems to be how everyone remembers the 70s (1973 in particular). I’m not sure about this really. It made for a consistent look, but I still couldn’t help noticing how the period cars all mostly looked brand-new (even the one with the scratch down the side). Suspension of disbelief was not aided by this instagram-style cinematography. That aside, I liked the portrayal of the Circus, with its labyrinthine walls within walls, and the scene in which Peter Guillam is tasked to sneak a log book out of the secure fifth floor so that Smiley can see it is brilliantly handled, as is the fact that the only clue in the purloined document is what isn’t there.

This sums up the espionage genre brilliantly. It’s not what is in a message but that existence of the message that is significant. It’s not what people know but how they come to know it. I remember in an early Smiley novel that a particular postcard was significant not because of what was written on it (no code there), but because it featured a photo of a church. These are the signs a spy is trained to look for. One observer notes that only a KGB trained operative would make a point of being so publicly drunk and incapable.

I’ve no real complaints about the casting, aside from the inevitable relegation of women to supporting roles. All of the cast perform well, but some of the faces are a little too familiar from the telly box. I’ve seen three movies in the past week or so featuring Mark Strong, which didn’t help (they were: this one; The Guard; and Kick Ass). I wish they’d spread the casting net wider, I suppose. Trigger from Only Fools and Horses is in it. Great actor, but still. In at least one case, the casting of one actor gives too much of a clue as to the likely outcome. Another member of the cast gives a good impression of a broken man near the end.

Director Tomas Alfredson does a good job of taking a very cerebral story dense with interior monologue and putting it on the screen, which I admire very much. Gary Oldman is excellent, his paired down dialogue mattering little in comparison to his command of expression. I think my favourite scene is near the beginning, when he appears to be spending hours staring at an ugly, abstract painting, as if trying to make sense of it.

So, yes, you might find this film boring, especially if you treat it like something you can half-watch and still get the gist. You can’t. I agree that 90% of what you see these days can be half watched with no loss of understanding, but this one you have to be watching in order to catch the nuance. Which is what makes it worth two hours and seven minutes of your time.

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