Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Haircuts, Then A Man Gets Shot: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I’m a bit late to the party on last year’s John La Carre adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but having just enjoyed the (lovely) Blu-Ray version, I have a few thoughts.

Tinker Tailor is, above all, a period piece.  Swedish director Thomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) expends great effort in recreating the look and feel of Cold War London in the 1970s. Men’s fashion gets special attention, with a wonderfully entertaining array of big haircuts and conservative suits that ooze 1970s British-ness.  Women get their short skirts and go-go boots, but it’s the men who are very much in the spotlight here (which is a larger problem with the film: there are only 2 minor female speaking roles in a cast of dozens). Little touches such as a focus on clunky technology like teletype and giant 70s telephones give the movie a visceral feel and sense of place.

The paranoid atmosphere of intelligence work during the darkest part of the Cold War is cultivated beautifully as well. At times it seems that whole scenes are made up entirely of sidelong glances and suspicious looks.

Behind all the haircuts and shifty eyes there’s a plot happening here, too. British intelligence agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is pulled out of retirement to covertly capture a Russian mole that has infiltrated The Circus, British spy network and the front line against the Soviets. Many of the familiar spy thriller tropes are here as he assembles a team (including a younger spy played by Benedict Cumberbatch- an actor with perhaps the most British name possible) and conducts a twisting and turning hunt for the mole.

Tinker Tailor can be forgiven for hitting those familiar beats, given that the novel it is based on basically invented them back in 1974. John Le Carre drew on his personal experience as a British spy in the 50s and 60s, and that experience comes through in the film, adding texture with small details of routine and jargon that have the ring of truth. The film gains a lot of credibility through its willingness to not hold the viewers hand throughout, and trust the audience to absorb all this through osmosis. This is a double-edged sword, of course, as if you aren’t actively engaged with the film you can quickly get lost.

Even if you aren’t sure what is going on, there is still a lot to enjoy in the atmosphere, sense of place, and excellent performances by a large cast of top British actors (John Hurt in particular turns in a wonderfully manic performance as the enigmatic Control). If none of that works for you, there’s always those sweet haircuts.

1 comment:

  1. It is my understanding that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing the villain in the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek sequel... And I just don't know how I'm supposed to feel about that.