Monday, January 09, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--A Review

No, I haven't read the John LeCarre novel and I never saw the miniseries starring Alec Guinness. I don't even usually see spy movies or read spy novels. But how can you resist the cast list?

Gary Oldman
Colin Firth
John Hurt
Toby Jones
Mark Strong

And two of the 2011 Edition Pretty Boys: Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

With a cast like that, and a strong story (I mean! The book was written almost 40 years ago and it's still famous!) you know that there was going to be some Major Acting going on. And yes--these boys acted the hell out of this story.

If you've seen the trailer, you know the basics of the plot. At the height of the Cold War (this is 1973 after all) British Intelligence has a mole at the highest levels. John Hurt wants to find out who it is, but his suspicions threaten an intelligence source, and he and Gary Oldman get forced into retirement. Then John Hurt is killed, and Gary Oldman is persuaded that the mole is real and he's the right guy to figure out who it is. It's one of the top four men in the service, given code names Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poorman.

Now, if you are Britain and you believe your entire intelligence operation has been compromised, would you turn to this guy to keep you safe?

Um--NO. He's even a Russian Terrorist--this guy would be the mole and would simply mow down everyone who got in his way while demanding the Crown Jewels. At least!

Okay, what about this guy?

I don't think you even have to answer that one. Do you suppose he wears the plastic head thing to cover brain surgery and ECT scars?

No. Just---no.

Wow. Britain really is in trouble. A little heroin, and Russia has a new patsy.

And I see the gleam of psychotic break in his eyes.

No, if this is the man who is going to be the last defense against Soviet infiltrations, we should just start learning how to drink vodka and write in Cyrillic. This guy is going to kill everyone and then turn double agent himself and. . .

And. . .

And wait a second. What about THIS guy?

That level gaze! That firm set of the mouth! That almost but not quite beige hair and skin and raincoat that amounts to near total self-effacement! This is the kind of guy who is smart, who is going to play his hand close to his vest, who is never going to be corrupted in any way! Yes! We'll take him and England will be saved!

Which is to say that Gary Oldman does an amazing job as George Smiley. He is so restrained and so uncharismatic, and yet he is implacable and you just know that once he has been set to solve the problem, shit is going to get solved!

Which it does, but there is no triumph in it. The damage has been done and the human toll is paid. The movie ends with a series of glimpses of the people left after the mole is discovered and all of them carry visible emotional scars. George Smiley and his wife are distant from each other; Mark Strong has lost his closest emotional connection and his belief in the value of what he does; people who were forced out of their jobs remain marginalized and useless despite their talents and devotion; the heads of The Circus (what LeCarre calls the intelligence service) have all been broken, exposed, and destroyed; and yet the Cold War grinds on and the work continues regardless of the human lives eaten up because to stop would be even worse.

The look of the film is exquisite--muted sepia-flavored light, not quite nostalgia-inducing, but clearly signaling a time in the past. The cars are ugly 1970s freaks of British automaking, and George Smiley is driven around in something that looks remarkably like a cockroach. The Circus works in barely converted warehouse space, with ugly desks and walls, clearly stock scavanged and possibly dating back to WWII salvage. The generations are signaled quietly, with the Old Guard (most clearly lead by John Hurt) sporting crisp hair cut close to the neck, while the New Generation (notably Mark Strong and Colin Firth) letting their hair grow down to their collars.

The underlings are played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, each sporting a weird blonde dye job that marks their connection despite the differences in their roles signaled by every other thing about them--Hardy is a mess in denims and tennis shoes, often unshaven, smoking compulsively and completely emotionally rattled. Cumberbatch is smooth-faced, tightly controlled, deferential and cool, invariably in a buttoned up three piece suit with matching tie and handkerchief and hard soled Oxford shoes. Not preternatually Sherlock-style cool, but when put in obvious fear for his life he remains collected and his panic is obvious in his widened eyes and slightly faster walk. And somebody couldn't resist the temptation--his suits are tailored just a hair too wonderfully for his character's position. As a movie-goer, I appreciated the visual treat.

It's a great movie, but the plot is a little too Byzantine for the two-hour running time. I think I followed it (LeCarre virgin that I am) but the emotional moments didn't have the impact they probably should have. The identity of the mole made no emotional impression on me--I didn't care about who the suspects were, so I didn't care if they were (or weren't) guilty. The effect on our hero Smiley was non-existent as well, since he had already been thoroughly betrayed by The Circus at the beginning of the story. Nor had the relationships between the characters been well enough established for us to experience any of their pain--in fact, the whole cast were kind of like scorpions sealed in a bottle, and they were busy stinging each other to death for one reason or another, many of them petty. In some lights, being a Russian mole was arguably a more noble motive for betrayal than mere career advancement.

Having said that, the pure intellectualism of the story-telling is satisfying. You couldn't do this work and feel unalloyed patriotism--it's clear that Smiley at least does the work because he believes it has to be done, and he intellectually accepts the price he has to pay to do so. It's an elegant and intellectual film and definitely worth seeing. It's a crisp, tart contrast to the wallowing Oscar-bait movies swamping the theaters.

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