In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6.
I cannot fault you for not liking Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It demands that you keep up with it wholeheartedly with 100% undivided attention. Once you put in all the work the film is demanding and fully immerse into its hypersensitive world of subtleties, it becomes a rewarding experience. A blink feels like a gunshot. A facial tick becomes a car chase. Everybody is looking behind their backs.
Director Tomas Alfredson does nothing to make it easy either. Let’s list the things: 1) The story has a non-linear plot structure that the audience needs to piece together. 2) There is no explanation for the spy lingo. 3) The audience must play detective along with George Smiley, tracking who said what to whom, matching it to what was said in a previous scene to deduce if they are lying. Lying is an art form in itself. Are they lying entirely? Or just omitting a detail? What motivates a lie?
The film completely functions on a thematic level. Gary Oldman said in an BBC5 interview that director Tomas Alfredson doesn’t even think he made a spy thriller, which confirms my point. 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 perpetually spying on each other and how it alienates them apart. Humanity is a weakness and compromises their survival as spies. Every character in the film battles with their own humanity to survive. There is a great scene where Gary Oldman’s George Smiley lies to another character with a perfect poker face. The bleak coldness that he exudes is intense and shocking. The subplot with Smiley’s wife artfully gives insight to the Smiley character. We never get a good look at the wife because she exists as an idea – she is the deal he has to make with the devil. Home is where Smiley is at his most vulnerable and we see the consequences of Smiley’s commitment to his cold-hearted profession.
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. Alfredson films Jones in a way that makes him look like an evil leprechaun, similar to how Sergio Leone’s penchant for filming faces as if they were landscapes.
Speaking of which, this film has great cinematography in that it tells the story. 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 exist, like the backseat of a car. The camera moves, like the pan shots, really give a sense of place that constructs the moody, smoky, morally ambiguous atmosphere. With the long lenses, the audience is looking into the lives of these spies seated in tight spaces, as if we are watching them suffocate.
Something really noteworthy is how they utilized is Gary Oldman’s glasses as a plot device. Yes, Hint! Notice 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, which both guides your eyes to his performance and immerses you along with his investigation of what’s going on as he interviews each suspect.
Hands down, Gary Oldman should win the Oscar. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. How does an actor underplay a role to this degree and still manage to be this engaging? Due to the Academy’s usual taste of rewarding showy loud performances, it seems unlikely Oldman will win the gold statuette. It’s a subtle performance completely constructed around what he’s not showing and what he is not saying. But at least the Academy recognized the brilliance of his performance. It’s a step, right?