Monday, 16 January 2012

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

With the Cold War in full swing, a botched covert operation to find a double-agent placed within the highest echelons of British intelligence costs head-honcho 'Control' (Hurt) and right-hand man Smiley (Oldman) their jobs. When new information from a rogue operative (Hardy) reignites rumours of a traitor, Smiley is pulled from retirement to spy on the spies and smoke out the mole.

Upon setting up his task force, Smiley learns 'Control' had long harboured fears of a spy within the ranks, distrusting even those in the inner circle. 'Control's' suspicions are visualised through pictures of his suspects taped to chess pieces and given code names from a nursery rhyme. 'Tinker' is the career driven Percy Alleline (Jones); 'Tailor' the mordant Bill Haydon (Firth); 'Soldier' a breviloquent Roy Bland (Hinds); 'Poor Man' persnickety Hungarian immigrant Toby Esterhase (Dencik); and finally amongst 'Control's' suspects miserable sack of spuds George Smiley himself, designated 'Beggarman'.  Aptly nicknamed 'The Circus', they are the high-value pieces at the top of MI6, each operating in accordance of their assigned chess pieces in a grand game of strategy. Others such as Smiley's aide, Peter Guilliam (Cumberbatch), are soon roped into this game of cat and mouse as things become infinitely more complex and dangerous. No chess game would be complete of course without its sacrificial pawns. Mark Strong's Jim Prideaux and Tom Hardy's Ricki Tarr; men who do 'The Circus'' dirty work, complete the essential piece of the puzzle. And suddenly the game is afoot!

And some puzzle it is. Adapted from famous spy novelist John LeCarré's book of the same name, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ensnares its audience in a tense world of old boys clubs and mountains of dusty files. It is a merciless roller coaster of savage bureaucratic espionage and infighting, where trust is always a misnomer and nothing is ever as it seems. And for a spy film which omits the frantic rush to stop a ticking bomb or some other calamitous mayhem, there is always a very real sense of danger and foreboding. There's so much uncertainty and paranoia floating about that the subsequent climate this creates is palpably volatile. While very understated, it's also very real. You really just don't know what the next twist is, and that's frighteningly dangerous in its own right.

It's this atmosphere, buoyed by its murky seventies Cold War setting, which makes Tinker Tailor a thoroughly absorbing experience. Rather than feeling dated or stuck in bygone era, this is more a homage than an attempt to invigorate a period for the here and now. It's unashamedly grey and brown, set firmly in a place where time doesn't flow, but is frozen. The characters are also part of this forlorn tapestry where then fashionable brown and orange wallpaper reflects the ribald, exhausted looking priests of British intelligence. It's a rich, nuanced world created here by Swedish director Thomas Alfredson (Let The Right One), inviting an investment where you want to know who's doing what to whom and why. While the drab aesthetic is without doubt entrancing, it's of critical importance to heed another MI6 employee who uttered those infamous words "do pay attention double-O-seven". One must constantly concentrate throughout Tinker Tailor, a film so vast in its complexity of twists, turns, counter-twists and counter-turns that even Otto von Bismarck would be left scratching his head. Yes it's dense, difficult and depressing to follow at the best of times, but like in real spy-dom a fastidious attention to detail will yield rewards.

Where the mystery of the mole is engaging in itself, perhaps more enthralling are the nuances of the men involved. One might expect that the collective which constitute 'The Circus' would be the staunchest defenders of democracy and the Western way of life, patriotic chaps who represent the best of British. What's engrossing is how much further from this ideal these men could be. Instead we have alarmingly fallible men disillusioned and cynical of those in power who, as a consequence, are liable to becoming unprincipled traitors to those that may offer a better deal. It is a chord which would have resonated with its Cold War audience of the time, an idea that the West was a spent force and had no more to offer other than the gratification of greed - an amorality eschewed by its ascetic rivals in the East. It was a very real fear that such exotic influences could be allowed to fester at the core of society, an indolence to protect a system that offered little, yet where a failure to do so could let in something far worse. The film's ashen-grey setting of seventies London does much to enhance this feeling of a decadent West about to cave on itself. If you know the history of the period - the rise of trade unions, three-day weeks, power cuts, IMF bailouts - then you can begin to see why no one would want to invest in a nation, a system, which offered nothing. Britain wasn't alone in its problems. American reputation lay in tatters for its war in Vietnam while CIA coups brought people like Pinochet to power. At home it faced the most famous political scandal of the twentieth-century, Watergate. The seventies were very much a period that shook the central tennets of Western civilisation and while you might not think much of Tinker Tailor's archaism it is still quite possible to draw parallels to today. Once again confidence in the system has dramatically plummeted in the face of joblessness, corruption scandals and high bonuses for those who messed up in the first place. Despite being set in a world structured along fundamentally different lines, perhaps ironically this bears more relevance now than any time since.

The film's other underlying current, betrayal, is one which permeates throughout on multiple levels. From betrayal of queen and country to that of personal relationships and self, a vivid picture of the world these ringmasters live in soon emerges. Here sexuality is used to emphasise this, an issue which the book skirts over but one which Alfredson chose to add to great effect. For example, Smiley's wife Ann is shown to be a serial cheater, apportioning favours to close work colleague, Haydon. Ricki Tarr meanwhile forms a connection with a woman on a secret mission abroad, promising her a new life in the West only to fail in saving her from the torturous clutches of the KGB. Hard-as-nails field agent Jim Prideaux, best friends with Haydon since their time at an all boys school, is driven to extreme actions more becoming of a bond which supersedes friendship. But while sex does much to highlight this theme of betrayal what it shows more of is how this group of people, these intelligence deities who preside over the nation's safety and are the frontline against the threat of an international communist conspiracy are just as prone to error as anyone else. Perhaps even more so. They are mortals, as frail and susceptible to emotion as the next person, and this provides a strange yet fascinating twist for an otherwise emotionally cold film.

As one might gather, Tinker Tailor has managed to assemble a sterling ensemble of some of Britain's finest actors. Smiley wasn't the easiest role for Oldman to fill, given that LeCarré's book was made into a BBC miniseries where the character became inextricably linked with an impeccable portrayal by Alec Guinness. Indeed, so synonymous did Guinness become with the book's inscrutable protagonist that Tinker Tailor has drawn some skepticism. Oldman fortunately is superb, eerily motionless but in possession of a piercing mind as he pulls off stoicism in an amoral world of double-crossing and egotistical opportunists. He is a very British type of hero - tired, colourless, and defeated in demeanour, yet despite his nonchalance and drab appearance is a master of his trade - someone you underestimate at your peril. Cumberbatch's recent meteoric rise to fame is once again fully justified here as is another rising star, Tom Hardy, showing a versatility in a role which couldn't be further removed from his latest character, Bane, in the upcoming Dark Knight Rises. As we've come to expect from John Hurt his vitriolic 'Control' is excellent while the time travelling Colin Firth does what he does best, seamlessly blending into yet another period drama. Likewise Mark Strong, not a villain for once, yet again turns in a 'strong' performance.

In the past few years we've had the explosive antics of Bond and Bourne, but this, without any hint of things going boom or martial arts madness, could easily be considered more exciting then either of them. There's no Pussy Galore, Aston Martins fitted with ejector seats or exotic locales here - only piles of disheveled documents situated in drab London settings and dinky little caravans. It's the cerebral spy thriller, a 'whodunnit' that would test even the combined grey matter of Poirot and Marple. Admittedly it can be a little ponderous, and perhaps the biggest let down to this clever caper is its final reveal. While commendable in its lack of histrionics it is perhaps a bit too understated. However, considering this is a film inhabited by deeply flawed monomaniacs and quislings afflicted with paranoia and sociopathy, this won't stop you from being sucked into its smart and dreary world.