Monday, January 30, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The time is the early 1970s, and deep inside the paranoid cocoon of Britain’s Cold War-era Secret Intelligence Service, the news of a mole inside the upper echelons of the agency is slowly corroding all sense of what is real and what is not. It’s a strong hook, and good thing, too—the first half-hour of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will likely appear incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the John Le Carre novel from which the film is adapted. This would be a dense narrative under any circumstances, but the early establishing scenes have a clipped feeling, as if the filmmakers had resolved to adapt every second chapter of the book and then hoped the details would somehow sort themselves out. Thankfully, they do, and Le Carre novices (like myself) will find themselves eventually forging the connections neglected by the filmmakers. Indeed, everything flows together gracefully enough that one begins to wonder if the early awkwardness was really due to clumsiness or was actually meant to evoke a sense of disorientation befitting this duplicitous world (a little of both, I suspect).

It helps to have such a deep lineup of talent on the cast—led by the esteemed Gary Oldman and his glasses—with fine character actors penetrating into even the smallest roles. This might seem like a strange compliment, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy possesses one of the most homely casts I’ve seen in a mainstream film in recent memory, even with Colin Firth screwing up the bell curve. So many wizened, weary men, their worry lines slicing through their age lines, and then seemingly rubbed in an extra layer of dust and sadness—every face is a desiccated monument to a life of hard choices. The whole film echoes that sense of drabness, right down to the perpetually overcast skies and each dowdy detail of the production design (were the 1970s really this brown?). Director Tomas Alfredson could easily be accused of overindulging in the retro-chic, except that the style seems at least as important to the film’s purposes as its spy-counterspy machinations. As the mole notes, his betrayal “was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.” A glib characterization of the Cold War, perhaps, but the film makes a case for it. The decaying western world is safeguarded by the moral compromises of its decaying protectors, and whatever you may call this sad sight, "pretty" is not likely a term that comes to mind. How else to rationalize the image of a balding, pasty middle-aged man dancing in paisley and ruffles? The loyal soldier commits many crimes in the name of war—against fashion, as much as anything else.

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