Friday, September 9, 2011

Stray Thoughts: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY Photo: Jack English All rights reserved. (c) 2010 StudioCanal SA
I've been doing some writing for fresh-faced Irish site over the last week or two, and will hopefully continue to do so over the next few months too. Through their contacts, I attended a press screening of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy t'other morning. My thoughts can be read over here: (give 'em the traffic and I keep getting to see cool films!). TL; DR? It's rather good indeed. But I would never abandon you, loyal Film Ha Ha readers! And so here I present some stray thoughts on this wonderful film of espionage, wars that are cold and excessive levels of famous people. These are some extra features, if you will, just for you. Enjoy!

How does it measure up to Let the Right One In?
Following up a breakthrough hit such as LTROI isn't a small task for any director. To Alfredson's credit, he doesn't try to emulate the success of his previous international success. This is a very different film altogether. One that they do share in common, though, is a wonderful eye for period detail. He's not the most happily nostalgic director in the world - the pasts he conjures up are grimy, grey and morbid. The result, however, are period pieces that don't really feel like traditional 'historical' cinema. Both evoke timescales that aren't commonly explored in contemporary cinema, and feel wonderfully fresh as a result. Basically, if Let the Right One In breathed new life into the vampire movie (can you breathe life into undead creatures? Anyway...), Tinker... is a glorious return to form for the Cold War thriller. We missed ye.

Is it confusing? 
Here's something that could border on a problem. As far as I can gather, previous versions of TTSS (book and TV) have been rather dense affairs. Condensing the heavy story into one hundred and twenty minutes could be a problem. Occasionally it is.

Minor Spoilers Ahoy (skip if you wish to err on side of caution) 
One unfortunate directorial misstep is that Alfredson is relegating a certain character's death to a brief shot in the middle of a post-prologue montage. It's sudden and awkwardly handled, even more confusing as the film adapts a structure that regularly embraces flashbacks without much warning. I certainly warmed to the structural eccentricities relatively quickly, and as the film progresses there's a clearer divide between past and present (which is also our past, but that's complicating matters unnecessarily). But it took me ages to figure out when and where this character died, only indicated by his absence at a meeting scene close to the halfway mark. Maybe I'm just stupid (highly possible) but it's a rare notable problem with the movie.
Minor Spoilers End

Other than that, Tinker... isn't particularly confusing for a film that features a wide array of names and places the audience are required to keep track of. Sure, you'll lose track of some names. There's a discussion or two where the sheer amount of information may pull you down. Overall, though, it's pleasingly accessible, and there are few if any points where an audience member will miss the twists that really matter as the film approaches its rewarding end game.

Who's getting the awards?
Firstly, we all know awards are redundant. What a silly question, whoever you are! But yeah: it would be downright shameful if certain elements of this masterful ensemble aren't recognised for their achievements in acting. Personally, I emerged most impressed by Oldman and Hardy. The former is quietly understated, the other making a typically strong impression despite being somewhat of a late comer narratively. Special kudos, however, to Toby Jones. An always trustworthy face, Jones embraces his roots and pulls out one of cinema's most endearingly British accents: a voice that always dominates during his comparatively minor role. If there's an award for best accent, the man deserves it. Jones' own camp performance as a Nazi in Captain America is probably one of his great competitors in this field.

Any pretentious final thoughts?
Thanks for asking. Not since Michael Haneke's Cache has a film been so fond of surveillance. The camera, the soundtrack, that shady stranger: rarely do films make you feel so untrustworthy of everyone around. The camera here is, at best, another character: lurking in the shadows, never letting you enter into a false sense of security. It's the themes of paranoia that really make this film such an engaging, thoughtful and ultimately memorable film. This uneasiness even stretches to the exciting setpieces, including one that makes beautiful use of sweat itself. Further edge-of-your-seat sequences take place in libraries, foreign countries and creaky safehouses. This, being honest, is the kind of film that puts the hyperactive, trigger happy Mr. Bond to shame. When someone pulls a gun here, there's real danger afoot. And you can be assured there's rarely a moment when someone nearby doesn't have a holstered firearm. Indeed, as events constantly threaten to boil over, TTSS could easily be read as a cinematic analogy for the entire Cold War.

Also, I'll be curious to hear other people's thoughts on the 'school' subplot that takes up a few minutes of running time after the halfway mark. It could probably be considered superfluous if you're feeling cynical. While it can be a little on-the-nose at times (you'll see what I mean when you see it) it is a nice thematic contrast to the main story, and ultimately leads towards a rewarding conclusion.

Final final thought?
The way Alfredson never shows Smiley's wife's face? The nicest directorial indulgence in a film chock-a-block with visual flourishes.


  1. No mention of the wonderful original wirh Alec Guinness...
    Loved that version, can't wait to see how this compares.

  2. I stand corrected, how could I have doubted you.
    An excellent review.