Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
From one cold, convoluted mystery film to the next; though where Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo was an exercise in confusing plot in order to excise it from our attention, allowing us to stare carefree at the complex but coherent characters, Tinker, Tailor is simply an exercise in confusion. This incomprehensibility is ingrained in every layer of the film: from its structure through its script and all the way to the most uncertain element of all, its characters. If you’re not staring dumbstruck at the screen, wondering what the hell is going on for the first forty minutes of the movie then you’re not watching Tinker, Tailor how it is meant to be watched; for that fact is not a flaw in either the film or your viewing of it. The period in which the picture is set, the 1950’s, was one of intense paranoia thanks to the perpetual cycle of cold war politics; and because nothing was set, sure or stable for the people of the period, nor is it for us here in the film. It’s a bold and brilliant technical manoeuvre that nearly breaks the film entirely.
Our protagonist here, George Smiley, the one character that we should be able to trust and take hold of, is perhaps the most a peculiar one. Instead of being an easy entry point into this world of proper English espionage Smiley’s stone-face is actually the slickest surface to be found in the film. ( Tom Hardy’s turn would have been the lead in a traditional production, so he is of course relegated to the smallest of roles, his face enveloped in shadow for half his screen time.) Smiley is a silent man and one that never lets the world in, ourselves included, he instead looks out, observing all he sees objectively. So Smiley’s real role in the films proceedings then is not as their focus, but as their fulcrum. He acts as a psychologist: sitting, staring, listening and analysing every facet of his fellow spies as they tell him their stories; in exactly the same way that we are analysing them.
The film then is almost a first-person production, though that title would be doing a massive disservice to the man behind the mask, Gary Oldman. This kind of introverted role is the inverse of what we have come to expect from Oldman, but as expected he nevertheless nails it completely. Just because he isn’t out there swallowing the scenery whole – he’s way beyond chewing – doesn’t mean that he’s still not acting just as much, it’s just that all the activity is occurring under the surface. It takes a concerted effort but if you concentrate on the man’s face and minor actions well enough then you will be granted everything you need to know. The first time that we see Smiley in the present he is at an Optometrist, getting his eyes tested; this scene is speaking directly to us in the audience telling us that we too are to have our vision tested but the events that will follow, that we too will need to have the correct focus. Nothing is given away easily in this film, but that doesn’t mean that its not all there; a good spy needs all his senses, so too a good viewer.
In direct contrast to Smiley the majority of the other men involved in the mission are at once obvious and mercurial. They give off signs and symbols from which we can derive character – this one is the charming womanizer, this one the testy toadie, etc. – but they give it all away knowingly and thus it is then up to us and Smiley to decipher what information is real and what is simply acting. Speaking again if acting, the cast here all make it look simple, slipping into their roles entirely with ease. The whole Cast is… Christ it’s amazing, these are all A-grade actors giving their A-game. Which is a shame in many ways, because each can and has held whole films on their backs and so the brief bite-sized chunks that we get of them here isn’t enough to satisfy, my taste for spy is not sated. Why is this not an ongoing series?
Though the movies technical merits don’t end in front of the screen thanks to director Thomas Alfredson’s superb direction. It is almost unbelievable that this is only his sophomore feature given just how cool and confident he is behind the lens; though fans of his first, “Let the right one in” will no doubt know this already. The quality of imagery is so important here because Tinker is a very visual film; what goes unsaid is not unimportant, but how the characters don’t say it is. To keep our attention and our eyes focused on the screen every scene has something interesting going on in the background; from squash games to a giggling theatrical troupe in the garden. Every shot is both entertaining and engrossing because of this approach that thankfully never becomes extravagant; though the construction of twelve large chandeliers to be used only in the background of a meeting certainly comes close.
The one thing that I’m not so sure of is the script, i can’t quite place why but i just don’t trust it. It is essentially structured as a series of singular strands, individual spy stories that start and end in an uninterrupted run of scenes before we wind in towards the next, adding another layer to the tapestry, which slowly comes together to form something quite intricate indeed. This almost anthology-esque approach is certainly an intriguing one and in any other instance I would likely favour it, here however it troubles me. Telling multiple stories is a sure positive, however when they are all being told in this ambiguous and intentionally impossible manner it starts to make things a little more convoluted than they maybe need to be. When each strand is as successfully subtle and complex as these are it simply starts to seem like a waste to skip right over onto the next one when what we just finished watching still seems to have so much to give. On an individual, scene-by-scene basis however the screenplay is properly fantastic, some of the speeches given are stunning and the character work is wonderful down to the most minor of roles.
Tinker then is both a film that I respect a great deal and as engrossing a mystery as the mind can find -real mental gymnastics are required to follow along with, let alone get ahead of the story – but if there is one lesson that the film learnt too well from its wartime setting it is not to get emotionally involved. Smiley’s core story is about the dangers of a spy letting his emotions get involved in his work, even in subtle, subconscious ways because it is sure to just confuse the facts; Alfredson shouldn’t have taken this on board because it is an entirely different deal for filmmakers, they need the emotion to help convey the facts. Thankfully though that amazing cast and solid screenplay work well enough to cover, conveying in single shots whole streams of feelings, it’s just a shame that none shoot through the screen to us. Some sort of phenomenological feeling or a personal investment would have raised this technically terrific movie to the level of masterpiece but instead it falls just short, ending as a perfect puzzle-box but not a perfect picture.