Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoughts on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

There’s very little movement in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Or perhaps I should say there’s lots of very little movements: a woman steps through a doorway, two people catch each others’ eye across a party, someone sights down a rifle, a car window opens a few inches, a man pulls a trigger. Wait - do we see the trigger being pulled or just hear the shot that results? I can’t remember, exactly, but throughout the movie it seems as if we’re always arriving on the scene too late: we see the aftermath, but not the event itself; we see the reaction, but the action is always just out of reach. This is a movie with many ripples and few stones.

The cast is filled with great actors, yet they’re very rarely allowed to act against each other in extended scenes. The relationships between the characters don’t open up in front of us, and that’s true of everything else in the complicated, expansive plot. The movie condenses Le Carré’s novel into moments and gestures. A shot of someone looking at a photograph stands in for years of personal history. The set pieces are often over before they’ve even seemed to have begun, and, though I know the story well, having read the novel twice and seen the miniseries once, there’s a density to the filmmaking here that made me feel always a step behind.

The centerpiece scene stands out as the movie’s most theatrical sequence by a wide margin. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley recounts his one face-to-face meeting with his opposite number, the Soviet masterspy Karla. The encounter was a victory for Karla: Smiley revealing more about himself than he learns about his enemy. Alfredson seems to have taken this as a kind of guiding principle. The movie puts us in the same position as Karla: we come to understand our hero in the brief moments he lets his guard down.

The plot, though expertly handled, is really just material here. The heart of the movie is its look (it’s appropriate that it’s made by a man who directed a movie called Four Shades of Brown), its mood, its brilliant character sketches, and, for lack of a better phrase, it’s world view. Alfredson’s outsider’s perspective is key, I think. There’s no sense of “They’re monsters, but they’re our monsters, dammit” that we get from The Sandbaggers. There’s no camaraderie among the intelligence agents on display here, as there is in John Irvin and Arthur Hopcraft’s 1979 miniseries. This is not a movie about “The Great Game”, not even about it in order to subvert it as in Fred Schepisi and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Le Carré’s The Russia House. At the risk of simplifying things, it does seem like a Swede would have a different perspective on the Cold War than a Brit: witnessing the action from afar, but, perhaps, perilously close to any potential consequences. What is emphasized is the urgency, the seriousness of the characters and their actions, but also their isolation and alienation from each other and the world. This is Le Carré’s great theme: that the isolating act of spying warps the spy by making him alien to himself, suspicious of his own feelings. And Alfredson makes something dreadful out of the knowledge that it’s these men, so cut off from knowledge of themselves, whispering intently to each other in smoke-filled rooms, who are pulling the strings.