Wednesday, 28 September 2011

tinker tailor soldier spy (d tomas alfredson, w. bridget o'connor, peter straughan, le carré)

According to someone who works for the producers of this film, it had a lot of trouble getting financing. Which seems surprising. Because if this isn't a gold plated UK film concept then what is? It looks and feels like high quality Oscar bait. Which is both its strength and its weakness.

From an early shot of jet planes swooping over Budapest, pulling back to reveal schoolchildren in a bell tower cheering, it's clear that the director intends to pull out all the stops in order to beef up le Carré's famous text. It takes the folk-memory of a grey seventies London and makes it hyper-grey. The frames drip with what one assumes to be a meticulously graded lack of colour. With its Alpha role call of British male stars, the film comes at the viewer relentlessly, bludgeoning him or her into accepting that, yes, this is film-making at the top of its game.

Alfredson's breakthrough film was also set in the seventies, not that many noticed. HIs measured Scandanavian technique should be perfect for the convoluted, repressed world of British spies. And yet, in spite of its reasonable pacing and careful use of flashback, there's something slightly pedestrian about Tinker Tailor. One could say: that's the whole point, but le Carré's narrative seems to suggest it isn't. Where the British act as though they are insouciant functionaries, seeking to out-functionary their Soviet opponents, the reality is that their Christmas parties are a hotbed of seething passions and intimate tensions. When Firth's Bill Haydon tells Oldman's Smiley at the end that his seduction of Smiley's wife was "nothing personal", you can't help feeling that this could be yet another lie, another false move in the chess game these players have chosen to get caught up in.

All of which hints at the film's major weakness: we don't really know who these people are. With the exception of Smiley's passion for Anne and Ricki Tarr's tempestuous love affair, we learn nothing about their secret motivations and desires. So, when the house of cards comes down, and the denizens of the circus meet their fate, it's hard to care. (Idly I wonder what someone like Welles, with his flair for fleshing out minor characters, might have made of le Carré's book.)

Given this, and given the way in which Alfredson so brilliantly made us care about his vampires in Let The Right One In, one suspects he has been hamstrung by an efficient but prosaic script. Sensibly it puts much of the dramatic tension on Cumerbatch's shoulders as Guillam, but the brief scene where he appears to be cutting his ties with his lover offers a glimpse into the real deceptions and betrayals at work, underneath the more obvious games. The moment Strong's well acted Jim Prideaux catches Firth's eye at the Christmas party offers another hint.

Indeed, the Christmas party scenes, albeit filmed in a studiously observational style, are when the film really seems to come alive. The spooks playing their complex games are suddenly made human. The seventies setting rings entirely true; the shadow of the war fomenting both camaraderie and gloom, with the West far less better off in comparison to the East than it so earnestly believed. In these scenes those of us who were still in our childhood back in those days might catch a glimpse of the country we grew up in, one which is now unmourned and by and large forgotten. For all its slightly strident quality, it's hard not to wish that Tinker Tailor hadn't done more to take us into this world (a la Lives of Others), to make us understand the battles that had been fought that underpinned the battles which these men continued to fight through the Cold War, battles of both a political but also a personal nature.

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