Screening Log #39: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Written by Bridget O’Conner and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy




There’s that old nugget that “knowledge is power”, but I think that saying is a little too abstract. There is no notion of the content of power, or how it relates to the knowledge, and no consideration for the fact that knowledge must be applied to exert itself; knowledge cannot be power unless it somehow effects something. Then follows the question of the veracity of the knowledge: knowledge is relative and dynamic, mutable, often time contradictory, so how can conflicting knowledge both be equal powers? How is what is valid and true determined, and how is this knowledge then put into action? It is this struggle that motivates Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s novel Tink Tailor Soldier Spy.

This film foregrounds the processes that lie behind the veils of tedium, patience, and due diligence, that support the action of other spy films in the James Bonds of the cinema; before a ruggedly handsome and charming figure can leap into action someone has to look, assess the situation and decide on an appropriate strategy. The intelligence agents here are older, products equally of combat experience and political bureaucracy. The processes by which information is gained and weighed are slow, incremental. The action is minute, the drama accruing like heavy sediment as facts are obtained and connected. Following a forced retirement, British intelligence agent George Smiley, Gary Oldman, is tasked with secretly ferreting out a mole at the very top of the agency. This was a project undertaken by his friend and boss Control, John Hurt, who was also excommunicated and has since passed away. The men he must investigate are colleagues, people with whom Smiley has had an extended working relationship. The men involved are Percy Alleline, Toby Jones, Toby Esterhase, David Dencik, Roy Bland, Ciarán Hinds, and Bill Haydon, Colin Firth – all constituting a sort of murderer’s row of British acting talent. Smiley is aided by Peter Guillam, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ricki Tarr, Tom Hardy, is implicated.

The plot of the film is as complex as its list of characters is long and its actors talented. The unfolding events are naturally replete with revelations, nuances, and turns, that shape and re-shape interactions and relationships between the characters. I am not usually particularly sensitive to revealing plot developments myself, but in the case of a film such as this it would seem excessively cruel… and also, perhaps, problematic. Alfredson structures Tinker Tailor in a manner that is sympathetic to the process of its protagonist, clipping out his plot in short scenes of action and small facts and gestures, leaving much of the exposition to be inferred, nebulous and ambiguous. As such, relating the plot is complicated by only ever having, at best, a tenuous grasp on what has happened and why. Motivations are muddied, intentionally, by the players in the game, and many of the plot’s surprises exist with their concrete causes unavailable.

Alfredson’s camera sweeps over action slowly and often zooms in on action or pans out, mirroring the work being carried out by Smiley, constantly pouring over information, focusing closely on happenings and people, pulling back to examine the larger context. As with Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor is nearly aesthetically unimpeachable; Alfredson’s compositions are regularly gorgeously framed, thoughtful, striking, and germane to the action on the screen. A drab grey and brown colour scheme permeates the film, at once reinforcing its period in the 70s and the tediously slow, unexciting, manner in which this job is carried out.

Perhaps constructed with a rigorous fidelity to its source, and the spirit of it, that may problematically prevent a viewer from fully engaging the nuances of its plot, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is nonetheless a film so tightly assembled and well acted that it stands as a compelling experience. It is precisely because of the film’s reticence to grant the viewer a fuller understanding of the material, and thus the sense of mastery over it, of having power in the face of it, that it is equally admirable and, to an extent, impenetrable.


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