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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The neatest trick in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the classic John le Carre spy novel is to put you, the viewer, right into the action. The film puts you in the mind of its protagonist, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), as he goes about his job, which is to determine which of his former co-workers is a traitorous mole feeding sensitive information to his Soviet nemesis Karla.

There is a tremendous amount of plot in the movie, but to try and summarize the main trappings: Smiley and his boss, known only as Control, were forced out of the intelligence service (which is referred to as the Circus) after an agent named Jim Prideaux was shot in Hungary while trying to discover the identity of the mole. The main action of the film takes place a year later, after Control has died and suspicions of a mole still linger. Smiley is asked by the undersecretary to investigate, aided by an inside man at the Circus he trusts, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Looking through Control’s papers, Smiley determines that he had narrowed the list of suspects to five men: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) the current head of the Circus, his lapdogs Esterhase and Brand (David Dencik and Ciaran Hinds), suave Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and Smiley himself. The scene where Smiley discovers that his mentor and friend suspected him is one of Oldman’s best. Throughout the movie he manages to capture Smiley’s thinking with a modicum of movement, and the very slight reaction he has to seeing his picture on Control’s chessboard is an exemplary moment.

As the investigation proceeds the film manages to capture the eerie uncertainty and near absurdity of the spy game. The machinations of the characters are explored in a way that simultaneously plays up the life or death importance of their work while also questioning its necessity. Strikingly, the consequences here seem mostly constrained to within the community of spies themselves. What, if any, impact these complex and coordinated efforts have on the lives of ordinary citizens is unexplored. In the end the viewer is left wondering what these people are really accomplishing.

The script also does an excellent job of portraying the various modes and motivations of character. The men at the Circus are variously depicted as vain, selfish, greedy, blindly loyal, or worse. And yet they are all shown to be proficient and exceedingly capable. The movie really explores the profession of espionage and the toll it takes on the people involved. Flashbacks to a Christmas party at a supposedly happier time help to make these characters relatable as humans and further deepens the tragedy of where they are led by their profession.

The plot is not so heavy on twists and turns, although frequent distortions of time and place may befuddle those audience members who do not pay careful attention. The investigation itself takes on the character of Smiley, eminently competent, professional, and thorough. Smiley is someone who has managed to successfully hide the impact of his life’s work on his life, despite the likelihood that it led to his estrangement from his wife Ann. The solution to the mystery is both unexpected but entirely plausible, and seems subtly preordained in hindsight.

The epilogue to the film is one of the most satisfying I can recall, and made me hope fervently that Alfredson et al are planning to adapt the latter two-thirds of le Carre’s Karla trilogy.

As to my chain of 2011 movies, as of now Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy moves to the top of the list, and it will be very hard to knock out of that spot.

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