I started to appreciate cold war stories. Cold war era stories pervade much of the late 20th century popular culture, with stories in the fifties dealing with the prospect of nuclear war, and late 20th century stories (most of them sci-fi) dealing with post-nuclear World War III scenarios. The more realistic of the cold war stories are the spy story category, of which I’ve watched a few. I’ve seen a few, but not many; The Fourth Protocol (1987), Telefon (1977) and even Goldeneye (1995), a gem from my childhood, dealt with the remnants of the cold war. Some films recently have that vibe, like The Manchurian Candidate (2004), The American (2010) and The International (2009), with more intrigue and carefully constructed characters as opposed to outright gunfights and dance music. From the perspective of an aspiring screenwriter I’ve found cold war stories better than modern day spy stories due to the actual intelligence, trickery and skill that go into being a spy. These days it’s all digital and electronic, the intelligence war is half fought online and it’s harder to write about something one doesn’t truly understand. One thing that fascinated me was the idea that if a spy were caught he or she would swallow cyanide so as not to break under interrogation. That was something I couldn’t get my head around because I grew up in a different time. Back then men and women died over what they believed in, people dedicated themselves to ideals bigger than they were; people my age tend to focus more on their own quality of life than anything else.
Tinker Tailor... is set in 1973 Europe, and tells of the secret intelligence war between the UK and the Russians. The story centres on an investigation into which high-ranking member of British Intelligence is working for the Russians. That’s about as far as I’m willing to go with the plot, as it is the details in which the film really shines. Through sound and cinematography the minutiae is brought to the forefront: the buttering of toast; lovers kissing; the sucking of a mint. Papers, film reels, photos, the famous labelled chess pieces, all in sharp detail. The film really picks up the texture of the seventies. Everything has a cigarette smoked brown look to it, from the period accurate wallpaper to the graininess of the film stock. Tomas Alfredson’s film looks from the era and of the era.
The performances are just as nuanced. A character (audibly) swallowing hard before the delivery speaks volumes of both the character and the scene. And it’s that weight and care that’s applied to the film that makes it incredible. One of my favourite shots happens almost at the beginning, where Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is taken by surprise. We’re left with a static shot at the back of Oldman’s head, and after John Hurt’s character Control makes an announcement, Smiley turns to meet his gaze as if to say ‘wait, what?’ He’s also reacting in a nervous way, hiding his surprise from the onlookers in the room. Keep in mind this is the back of his head, it’s the slight hesitations and movements fill the shot with so much story and character. It's a small thing, but they could have done this in so many different ways and it’s amazing they went in this direction.
It all comes back to Gary Oldman, who turns in his best performance in a career of best performances. Recently he’s been nominated for an Oscar, one richly deserved. Oldman’s Smiley is wise and wily, but quietly so, a patient hunter who’s lonely though he doesn’t suffer it. You know enough about him that you want to know more, which fits the elliptical nature of the narrative. He plays people like chess pieces, though you don’t hate him for his manipulations. His performance is a quiet revelation.
Even as Oldman shines, the rest of the ensemble is just as magnificent. Mark Strong is great as Prideux, a skilled field officer, whose wisdom shines through despite his cold professional demeanour. Tobey Jones, Colin Firth, David Denick and Ciaran Hinds as the chief suspects are equally mysterious as they are slimey. Svetlana Khodchenkova is beautiful and tortured; Tom Hardy continues to be dynamite in everything he’s in. Comparably he has a small role in the film, and in one heartfelt scene he earns his place and stands out completely. Benedict Cumberbatch, everyone’s favourite Sherlock, is stellar as Smiley’s younger protégé Peter Guillam who’s appropriately anxious and awkward. Cumberbatch is going great guns at the moment, with Warhorse still in theatres. I had made a joke that all male British actors were split down the middle; half went to Tinker Tailor, the other half went to The Hobbit. Turns out that Cumberbatch is doing the voice of the dragon in the Hobbit so he’s literally everywhere this year.
Alberto Iglesias’s score is tense and mysterious. There’s something about the clarinet that seems to suggest intrigue, as many mystery films seem to use them. The film also uses music from the era as well, and I’ve never heard a live version of a song used in a soundtrack before, and certainly never used as effectively. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.
So yeah, I spent the whole review kissing this film's ass. There’s something nice about watching an adults movie, in that it doesn’t slow down to explain things. If you pay attention then you’ll be rewarded, and indeed by the end of it you feel as if you’re a spy and you’ve solved it along with Smiley. Tomas Alfredson has created a very carefully crafted movie, so much so that when the credits rolled I didn’t want it to end, which is a very, very good sign. I’ll be going to go see it again by myself I love it that much. So please understand this review is a bit biased. I count this as a movie of 2012 (it was released worldwide this year) and I wont be surprised if it comes in at no.1