The melancholic spy
First, the confession. I am not familiar with the work of John le Carré and have not watched any film by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson. So this review, of the film adaptation of le Carré’s celebrated 1974 spy novel Tinker,Tailor,Soldier,Spy by Alfredson, is chalk on a clean slate. Seasoned readers of le Carré, forgive the lack of informed, comparative criticism.
Seen as an independent work of art, this film is a treat for uncompromising cineastes. The plot’s intricate mesh will challenge you, and its stark visual language will thrill you. Screenplay writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, and Alfredson, work out details assiduously and use details of action to convey what dialogues don’t. A drop of sweat falling off the forehead of a waiter, right before a cataclysmic shoot-out, is there to build up tension in an otherwise quiet scene with two characters who exchange few words.
The film opens with an elaborate set piece inside the cabin of Control (John Hurt)—the chief of Circus, a unit of the British secret services—where the elderly, tough-talking but obviously cynical man is briefing one of his men, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), for an impending mission in Budapest. When the mission goes terribly wrong, Control, along with George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a spy of steely reserve and gravitas, the film’s protagonist, are fired. But Smiley and Control are called back to unravel the identity of a Russian mole planted in the secret services establishment.
They work in a neon-lit, austere office where a dense, oppressive air hangs thick. Their colleagues are Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and others, mostly middle-aged men. Smiley nurses a personal wound because of Bill’s betrayal; there’s never a moment of rest when they are in the same room, even though external gestures of confrontation between the two men are never visible. In fact, all the men in this group are hard cynics, in a state of constant perplexity; there’s rarely a full-throated laugh from these men. As one of their retired associates, Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), says, everyone was “seriously underf****d”.
Alfredson’s remarkable triumph in this film is the evocative atmospherics. The pace of the scenes appears slow, but there’s a lot happening in a frame—in the minutest of expressions and gestures and the few props that populate it propel the story. The director condenses a lot into a 2-hour film, but because of the execution and clever utilization of visual details, there are no missing or weak threads in the story. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could be a wonderful unlearning for those hooked to edge-of-the-seat crime thrillers. In its dependence on atmospherics, this is a work akin to the works of some of the Swedish masters of crime fiction. Maj Sjöwall and Per Fredrik Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series and many of Henning Mankell’s novels have policemen spies who could be diabetic, depressed or merely jaded. The weather and the local mise en scène seep into their narratives. This film’s scope is beyond simple police procedurals, of course. It is seriously steeped in the politics of the Cold War era of the 1960s, which makes it much more demanding of the viewer.
Although Smiley has an unnerving iciness about him, he is the beating heart of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Without saying anything, he gives away that nothing is beyond his grasp. In one of the film’s most riveting scenes, shot largely in close-ups, the writers give Smiley a chance to unlock his personal bruises in carefully chosen words, spoken in his halting manner of speech. Oldman is immersed in Smiley; it is one of the most powerful, yet nuanced, performances of the year. Firth, Cumberbatch, Hurt and the ensemble are in sync, as far as contributing to the simmering sense of doom goes, heightened by Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography. Tom Hardy has an energetic and charming cameo of a man willing to barter crucial intelligence for the safety of his lover, the brutalized wife of someone he spies on.
A film like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy rarely comes along. Spectacular beauty and cadence often don’t have their perfect union with the intellect. When it does in a work of art, you call it a masterpiece.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy releases in theatres on Friday.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Drowned in noise
The second instalment of Guy Ritchie’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ is a loud, but hardly thrilling action flick
Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law reprise their roles as Holmes and Watson in Guy Ritchie’s sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. The film begins well, and with many bangs. In Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), an unabashedly greedy and wily man in search of weapons, Holmes has quite a match. There are some thrilling scenes and the action is in Ritchie’s trademark head-banging, fast-cutting style. Noomi Rapace plays the role of a gypsy, and lends some soul to the loud film.
Overall, the film entirely strips Sherlock Holmes of the cerebral thrill that the classic is really about.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows releases in theatres on Friday.