Generally speaking, suspense films succeed only as far as their structural maze can support them. If a viewer craves what’s going to happen next then the picture is working. This philosophy is narrow-minded, but one that has become such a standard in our culture it’s impossible to wrap our minds around a thriller whose “thrilling” elements are not front and center. Meet Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a movie with a tightly wound plot that excites curiosity but promotes innovative style and deeply wounded characters to headline performers. The outcome is a film that drips off the screen like a minor miracle. Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy will no doubt be one of the best of 2011.
Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, the stone-faced and mannered man who has recently been fired from his post at Britain’s intelligence office for an unsanctioned investigation that left another agent dead. We flash forward one year, when a shaky informant, Frank Tarr (Tom Hardy) informs Britain that there is a mole in Smiley’s former group (known as “the Circus”). Smiley has sunken into loneliness in early retirement and his wife has left him. He welcomes the opportunity to come back to his former post to investigate the goings-on over his once close-knit company, specifically their involvement in an initiative known as Witchcraft. Smiley coldly moves through his past life, unraveling twists at every turn and ultimately deciphering the group based on their code names – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman – and discerning who among them may or may not be the mole. Any more information obviously ruins the plot. To say the least, if you blink you could miss something as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does everything but hold your hand through a densely rich slew of happenings. However, no retelling of the film or discoveries of plot elements could distract from the real revelation of the work – masterful pace and performances.
It’s a novel thing to approach a film primarily about its plot by developing a unique (if contradictory) character in the lead. Without even a wink of exposition given to Smiley’s past, we can approximate with some sureness that he has a military-taught discipline and an extraordinarily keen eye for investigation. Even the smallest show of emotion could crumble the important aspects of Smiley’s persona. Oldman gives the most layered performance of his career by being virtually deadpan throughout. You root for Smiley and, in fact, you do feel for him, but God is in the details because Oldman doesn’t do anything to pull at your heart-strings. One may find themselves asking, “What does actually make Smiley tick?” A relentless pursuit of the truth seems a satisfying answer since it’s certainly the most directly evidenced. A deeper look may offer that Smiley has genuine psychological shortcomings that render him aloof, with a tendency towards being somewhat of a sociopath. His coldness could be a result of years without trusting anybody he encounters, even his unfaithful wife. Surely that’s enough to tear a man to pieces only to build him back up as guarded as can be. A character like George Smiley graces the screen only occasionally, littered by regrets, stoic in his sorrow and contradictory in his passion. Oldman’s portrayal is stuff for the ages, a classic characterization.
The rest of the cast, beyond Tom Hardy, is serviceable, if not overly impressive. It’s not a detriment to the film that the secondary characters are devoid of complexity. This one’s Smiley’s show throughout and the suspicious wooden soldiers around him shouldn’t have been afforded any more texture than they were. Emotion is a naughty word in this bunch and one deep look into these guys can be exhausting enough. That is except for Hardy, who again announces his arrival as a rare breed of actor by knocking the audience upside their heads. Hardy’s Tarr first appears as an anonymous tip to the potential for a mole in the Circus. He’s sketchy, strung out and hardly inspiring of trust. Because of the breath of his story, they trust him nonetheless. Tarr does little to change our perception when he next appears waiting in the shadows of Smiley’s empty home. Once Smiley and Tarr get to talk, the real story begins to come into focus and carries our sympathy for Tarr with it. Hardy pulls a bit of magic trick by staying suspicious while coloring himself a martyr as well. Shivering and dangerous, Hardy never relinquished the shades of nervousness he purports in the beginning.
Beyond the compelling performances, Tomas Alfredson’s direction is about as close to perfect as one can hope for. The filmmaker takes every opportunity to impose a deliberate style via clever sound, lush muted visuals and unnerving music. There’s just enough here to remind us of more typical forays into the genre but the line Tinker walks is nearly as tight as other recent “thrillers” like The American. There’s also something Bressonian about Alfreson’s choices. Transitions watch doors open slowly and movement consumes more screen time than seems comfortable in our standard operating minds. Audiences will be put off by Ticker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s controlled slowness. These people are also the types who probably equate vegetarians killing plants to the way carnivores shoot deer for sport. They are missing the point, and certainly missing the finer aspects of storytelling. Sure the film could be a lot faster but all that would gain the viewer is a faster movie. What we would lose is a cinematic experience that organically weaves its whirlwind plot with the complexities of its dynamic characters. You can have Bourne Ultimatum, I’ll take Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy.
Those who see many movies quickly grow jaded at the state of contemporary film. Often I find myself turned off by a film’s lack of anything to say or interest in an innovative way to say it. It’s simple to wonder if it’s really the film that’s failing or the viewer’s expectations that are unreasonably high. Then a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy appears and implodes any thought that we actually live in a fruitful cinematic time because such a film shouldn’t be so incredibly rare. Ironically, the strange thing about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is it’s really not a specifically philosophical film. The insights aren’t groundbreaking, and certainly you’d be hard pressed to leave pondering specific life questions. It actually felt like pure cinema. A compelling web of a plot walked through by a dynamic character, told with the freshness of somebody who identifies with film the art over film the entertainment supplier. You can’t say enough about these types of experiences except to try to express the rare qualities that make them unique. I find myself trying to squeeze out every morsel of texture from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, hoping that can keep up my optimism until another special experience comes along.