Spying on the Spies: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
“It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?”
The spy sub-genre frequently acts below its material. Gadgetry and the thrill of espionage — chases, gunfights, assassinations — is preferred to the slum of work, the intensity of mistrust, and the mundanity of keeping the world safe. The genre, at least, is unaware of the spy game's constant dangers. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson and gorgeously photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema, is a revelation for committing to such banal trials and tribulations, enhancing the image of a sought-after file or an open window to a level of similar dynamism. Based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name, intelligence isn’t ignored or put aside in favor of visceral kicks; instead, it realigns to an older conception of what the ‘spy’ film can be, and it brings the viewer along for the mental ride, whether they understand it or not.
To say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a snooze-fest would be a disservice to the massive helpings of tension which Alfredson and Hoytema, one of the most aggressively brilliant Director-DP combos in modern cinema, imbue in their compositions, as well as the vigor of the cast. The audience is, from frame one, left with the remnants of the organizations of the characters and asked to pick up the pieces along with them. Comprehending the labyrinth which unfolds isn’t integral, as the film’s aesthetic ambience and general formal elegance is more than enough for appreciation, but the game for the viewer provides much of the anxiety and frustration that the picture thrives on.
The stream of images, consistently in view of surveillance or in a state of surveillance itself, suggest an unknown intruder of older spaces on the verge of modernity, omnipresent in its ‘eyes everywhere’ approach. It only benefits a story of men lost in a world they seemingly once had control over, like a final coda for a series the viewer never grew accustomed to. The abruptness of the situations, the tenor, the weaving of its tale provides a finality which radiates gravitas. The ‘laundry-list’ history of the agents is inessential, the audience sees it all in the haunted eyes of the actors; lost, cold, alone.
And these eyes — Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham, and Simon McBurney — make up one of the finest ensembles in any movie. They’re just as aimless as the material and the leads they’re chasing, trapped in architecture of paranoia, clustered against side-glances fired like torpedoes toward each other. It’s an interesting study in showcasing the James Bond types as who they really are: restless, deceitful, tired alpha-males desperately aiming for lead-role in the pack. Although Control is their place of occupation, they all move like single wolves among the falling snow. The puzzle pieces aren’t just comprised of paper and pencil, they’re human.
The work, as a completed vision, captures the melancholy of personal life lost, of a shifting political landscape, through pawns of flesh and the information they scramble towards. There’s a deep sadness in how the world got away from this set of characters, but ambivalence reigns supreme, their flaws overtaking any loss in virtue due to time. The ‘who’ is always clear; the ‘why’ is masked in cryptic opacity. As such, the characters become the vessels for the audience, even more so than a traditional picture, providing emotional lucidity to a story which relies heavily on endless dead-ends. Gary Oldman, in particular, as George Smiley — a presumably retired agent brought out to uncover a Russian mole within central intelligence — is a powerhouse in communicating affective drama via the rhythm and pacing of the words off the page, matching it with an even more coherent physical performance of buried trauma.
Of course, it should be stated that the film isn’t incomprehensible, merely a melody better observed within the spaces between the beats. Like many of its perspectives and approaches to location and environment, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an observer of its own material, of its own place in genre, and via that detached frame of reference, great portrayals and uncommon truths are unearthed. By always being aware of the construct of a spy movie, Alfredson created one unlike any other.