I can’t fault you for not liking this movie. It demands that you keep up with it wholeheartedly with your full undivided attention. Once you decide to do all the work the film is asking you to do, it’s very rewarding. A blink feels like a gunshot. A facial tick becomes a car chase.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does nothing to make it easy either. Let’s list the things: 1) Piece together the plot, which is non-linear. 2) Figuring out the spy lingo. There is no explanation for it. 3) Figuring out who’s saying what to whom and inducing if they’re lying and matching it to what they said in a previous scene. Lying is an art form in itself. Are they lying entirely? Or just omitting a detail? What motivates a lie?
This is a film that completely functions on a thematic level. Gary Oldman said in an BBC5 interview that director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t even think he made a thriller, this confirms my point. Although the film shows how real spy work is done, this is not a story about espionage at all. No, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about mistrust. It’s about these men confined in tight spaces, whose job is to constantly suspect each other, how it alienates them apart, and how being human compromises that necessity for them to survive as spies. Every character in the film battles with their own humanity to survive. There is a great scene where George Smiley (Gary Oldman’s character) flat out lies to another character with a perfect poker face and you realize how much more of a cold bastard one must be to do this job well. George Smiley is only vulnerable at home and I liked how they handled the part about his wife. She exists as an idea. She’s the deal he has to make with the devil.
Since I’m a Sherlock fan, I loved seeing Benedict Cumberbatch rise through the ranks into films now. He’s great as Gary Oldman’s younger sidekick who is still wet behind the ears. I look forward to seeing him in the next Star Trek movie. Please don’t make him play Khan. It would be a waste.
Toby Jones’ face screams red herring. He looks like an evil leprechaun and this reminds me of how Sergio Leone used to have a penchant for faces on film and how a face in itself can provoke a feeling like a landscape. I enjoy seeing a director with that level of sensitivity.
I will never just say a film has “good cinematography”, so I’ll always explain why. The film is about discovering truth amongst a cloud of lies and the cinematography really serves that idea visually. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema has managed to find layers of shadow in places that I didn’t know could exist, like the backseat of a car for instance. The camera moves, like the pan shots, really give a sense of place that constructs the moody, smoky, morally ambiguous atmosphere. See what I mean? This is a film about ideas.
Something really noteworthy is how they utilized is Gary Oldman’s glasses as a plot device. Yes, Hint! You must look at George Smiley’s glasses in every scene. It’s used like Maggie Cheung’s dresses in In The Mood For Love. What’s genius about is it forces you to look at Gary Oldman’s eyes, and creates that tension of asking what’s going on underneath the dialogue.
Hands down, Gary Oldman should win the Oscar. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. How does one underplay and still manage to be that engaging? Due to the Academy’s usual taste of rewarding showy loud performances, it looks unlikely. It’s a performance completely constructed around what he’s not showing and what he is not saying. But at least they recognized it. It’s a step, right?