Technology with attitude

Movie Review: The Quietly, Devastatingly Heartbreaking TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

0

The prevailing tone surrounding all three versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—John le Carré’s original novel, the 1979 miniseries, and this new film from Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson—is one of crushing interconnectedness.  Think sad, bitter old men, searching for the weaknesses in one another in order to sate their own personal & professional objectives (and oh my, is the line between the two thin).

But for me, the key scene in the film version has the ease and wit of a silent comedy.  Protagonist George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in a career-best performance) has just collected another ally in his search for a Soviet mole buried within British Intelligence.  Smiley’s confederate is a spook-turned-beekeeper, and as Smiley, his protégé Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the beekeeper drive off to their investigation office, a bee begins to buzz about the inside of the car, moving excitedly from man to man.

The scene plays in one long take; all the better to track the bee’s path and to see Guillam and the beekeeper try (and fail) to swat the bee.  The capper?  Smiley, noting the irritant from the corner of his eye, waits until it weaves its way back towards him, then opens his window and watches as the bee gets sucked out.

This moment plays out in under a minute, and you could be forgiven for thinking it a random bit of mischief, designed solely to leaven the film’s oppressive tension.  But look closer, and the whole movie reveals itself.  While his betters flail about and accomplish nothing, Smiley, for all his weary misery and seeming obsolescence, just sits back, absorbs his surroundings, and extinguishes the problem with maximum efficiency.

What makes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so appealing is how this scenario repeats itself, painting a rather jaundiced view of the intelligence community.  This is the Cold War, circa 1973, and from what we can tell, both sides battle against one another with what I’ll charitably call “pronounced indifference.”  They know the years of real conflict are over, yet they invest in the Soviet mole despite his having the same threat level as that bee.

Were the non-Smiley characters genuinely committed to stopping the Communist Threat, they’d have no trouble fingering the mole; to their credit, Alfredson and screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor makes no concessions to faux-surprise, choosing to hide the character in plain sight.  Instead, the cast gives Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy its unique narrative structure.  Ignoring the various curlicues, the plot moves in a straight line: we begin with a failed MI6 operation in Budapest, which ignites the suggestion of a double agent, whose possible existence gets passed along to Smiley, who spends the rest of the picture following different leads.

Aye, there’s the rub, as each suspect derails the truth in favor of explicating their own self-interests, be it survival (David Dencik’s Peter Lorre-esque ex-pat), professional advancement (Toby Jones’ ambitious corporate toady), love (for both sexes, as seen through Mark Strong and Tom Hardy’s characters), or just sexual gratification (Colin Firth’s wonderfully sleazy lothario).  Even if Smiley were immune to these desires (and he isn’t), his investigation forces him to wade through the emotional red tape.

And a funny thing happens.  We become invested in the many tales of woe.  We want Cumberbatch’s JV spy to maintain his innocence, if only a little.  We want Hardy to rejoin his Russian fling and quit the agency.  We want Strong to remain ignorant of a truth that will break his heart.  We even want Smiley to quit while he’s ahead; Oldman silently records the spiritual dissolution that comes with the character’s cognitive brilliance.  We want these things so badly that it comes as a slight shock when Smiley brings the hammer down, and such hopes vanish.  This is a world where the best dream an agent can have is to receive an unceremonious termination, where job security is no job at all.

The end result?  Alfredson saves his movie’s sole moment of respite for a tenderly accepted bullet to the face.  All that mess, caused by a bee.

Universal’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack preserves the gritty sheen of DP Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematic vision.  The palette—all muted grays and browns—recalls great paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View or Network; the look makes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy forever out of time.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track carries the same hushed intensity, punctuated by brief aural explosions.

Only the supplements disappoint.  We get six minutes of wisely chopped deleted scenes; a fluffy “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: First Look” featurette; twenty-five minutes of interviews with Oldman, Firth, Hardy (looking like Bane from The Dark Knight Rises), le Carré, and screenwriter Peter Straughan; and a commentary track from Alfredson and Oldman that’s too heavy on the movie-watching silences.  Where’s the material on Maria Djurkovic’s impressive production design, or a feature showcasing the film’s seamless digital trickery (you wouldn’t think to look at it, but there’s a ton of CGI here, augmenting the main action in subtle ways)?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a great movie—one of the year’s best—and in some ways, having it on Blu-ray with perfect A/V quality is good enough.  But like David Fincher’s similarly underrated masterpiece Zodiac, the film turns you into a voyeur; you want to know as much about it as you can after it ends.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy streets on March 20th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.