Monday, December 19, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

2011, Tomas Alfredson

More than, I think, any other genre, I'm fascinated by espionage stories.  Not playboy spy stories, which is what the Bond films have largely pushed the public perception of the genre into (though I like those too), I'm talking about stories of secret agencies (largely British ones) and the people that work for them, the intricate inner workings of these organizations and the political landscape that surrounds them, set against the backdrop of the Cold War and the heated paranoia it led to.

Beyond simply an awareness of its existence I have no familiarity of the 70's BBC mini-series (starring Sir Alec Guinness) spawned from John le Carré's novel, but during the first half of Tomas Alfredson's cooly adapted big screen version of the story I longed for the decompression that I know a BBC production would provide.  That's not to imply anything negative about Alfredson's deliberately-paced, and highly intuitive picture,   except to say that the material could use a bit more time to breathe and allow the many players involved a bit more time to gel with an audience.

As it is, the director of "Let The Right One In" affirms his assured directorial hand by providing another film that rewards the audience's intelligence rather than insulting it.  For much of the film, as with his last effort, Alfredson trusts his actors to, well, act, rather than exposit.  The script from Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan uses language in a natural manner, characters having conversations with each other rather than explaining things to the audience.  As such, attention must be paid to both the words, finding subtext within, as well as looks, glances, reactions, and lack thereof.

Set firmly in the early 1970's, the film stars Gary Oldman, always a most understated leading man, perfectly cast as George Smiley, a disgraced veteran agent forced into retirement after an operation gone wrong, but secretly called upon once again to investigate the claims of a mole in the bureau from an active agent  returning after a long, mysterious absence.

The film has numerous flashbacks woven into the process, all relevant to the task Smiley has been charged with, but also, in many respects, relevant to the profile of his own character with such subtlety that it can easily be lost amidst all the chill.  The production team recreate the early 70's aesthetic beautifully, the visual impact of "high-tech" 70's spy organizational procedures, providing its own curious allure.  Along with the details, Anderson's frosty lens breathes life back into the Cold War.

The cast is rounded out by a veritable "who's who" (or "who's that") of UK actors, including Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kathy Burke and Tom Hardy, each bringing something decidedly unique to the proceedings.

The film is a complex array of characters, names, details, actions and reactions, thus immersion is a must.  This isn't passive viewing, but it's told smartly enough that even if you can't process all the details as they're introduced, you eventually come to see how all the pieces fit.  It's a success in storytelling, but easily perceived as a flaw to a modern audience not used to being challenged.

Ultimately the only real flaw of the film stems from the nature of its story, which revolves so intently around deducing the identity of the mole that once revealed it potentially depreciates the film's rewatchability (and yet, my desire to view the BBC series now is pretty high, so perhaps not).