Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 2011.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson.
Starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, Ciarán Hinds and Kathy Burke.
George Smiley must find the Russian mole in Mi6 during 70s England.
Think of a spy and you get the romanticised version – the Bonds and the Bournes. They’re a necessary ridiculousness in cinema, too entertaining and fast to notice the logic hole at their core. How can a spy, that most discreet of professions, be as mind-blowingly awesome as Pierce Brosnan? How can a spy, whose main requirement is one of subtlety, drive cars out of the sea or a tank through a city?
Spies, in reality, shouldn’t stick out. They need to blend in – not in a fake nose, silly glasses way, but in a flavourless way, to “bland” in, like tofu. People whom, even if you got a really good look at, you’d struggle to remember a defining feature of their appearance.
It’s this commitment to realism that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes rather seriously. A fair few have interpreted this as ‘boring’ (or ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Shite), and perhaps they’re right. It all comes down to how you prefer your baked-beans: cooked on the hob, or done in a microwavable snap-pod. A slower burn might make them less sexy, but the flavour is far richer.
That’s why you get George Smiley (Gary Oldman – the character’s age given away by his name) instead of some youthful, free-running upstart. Recently let go from Mi6, he is appointed to investigate claims of a possible Russian infiltration into his old department.
It’s 70s, Cold War Britain, where Mi6 was locked in a war of espionage and intelligence against those across the Iron Curtain. The anti-Bonds populate Mi6: men with receding hairlines and chunky bifocal glasses. Everyone working there, at the “Circus”, owns an unflattering, ¾ length trench coat.
The two sides have been long stuck in stalemate. They trade pieces to each other for information. Most of the time, the defectors are offered a new, comfortable life on the opposite side of the Curtain. Others take the more dangerous route. They maintain their position whilst acting as a double agent.
Chess pieces are a recurring metaphor in the film. The head of Mi6, “Control” (John Hurt), believes he has a mole burrowing deep into his organisation. He Sellotapes a photo of each suspect to a chess piece and assigns them codenames – tinker, tailor, soldier, poor man and beggar man. The photos are of the top five men at the “Circus”.
Sellotape! The details matter most in a slow-burning film. Computers are limited and slow and these are men who learnt their trade in a world war. They work with their hands, with non-digital objects – old, dusty paper documents, Steenbeck editing suites, Sellotape. Information meant so much more because it was harder to attain. You needed a network of contacts, access to thousands of logs and files. Such men would think simply hacking into an enemy’s database as crude.
Tomas Alfredson shows his respect for these details with long shots (in both size and length) in deep focus. The minutiae could be there in a faster film, but you wouldn’t have as much time to observe them. By filling the frame with space rather than actors, the eye is encouraged to become its own spy. You notice details in rooms. The long pauses between lines, the restrained shots of characters sitting and thinking give you a chance to do the same. The mechanics of what you have seen, the possible motivations, the ‘tells’ – who is the mole? Given your full attention, this can be a mentally exhausting film.
It’s astounding how the appearance doesn’t look to be of this time. The attention to period detail accounts for most of this – the attire, the red phone boxes, the automobiles, the constant cigarettes – but it is the visual style that coats everything in dust, as though it’s a restored film from the 70s. The lens has a consistent grain, a mark of age.
Throughout, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy keeps returning to a “happier time” (“it was the war,” Smiley soberly points out), when the “Circus” was internationally respected, before political backstabbing and suspicion blemished the organisation. The scene to which we keep going back is the department’s Christmas party. The way it keeps interrupting the main narrative plays like old family memories committed to a recently recorded-over videotape. The recurring flashback allows dead characters to come back to life, and although the scene isn’t directly connected to the main narrative, it colours and contextualises their relationship histories.
The entire film is complexly structured like this. Although the care and clarity with which the story is told never lets you loose your footing, you aren’t once you allowed a lapse in concentration. You’ll miss too much otherwise. Your own mind is asked to whir away as quickly as old Smiley’s.
And I like my films slow. I cook beans on the hob for at least ten minutes. It’s all about the slow burn.
365 Days, 100 Films