Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Posted January 6, 2012 by Daniel Hodgson in
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based upon John Le Carre’s novel of the same name, isn’t so much an espionage action film like the Bond and Borne franchises, but rather a drama about Cold War spies. While the story itself is interesting, it stops well short of intriguing. Le Carre’s novel simply doesn’t lift to screen well. It’s heavy on dialog, and light on visuals. Many scenes show agents sitting around talking about informants we never actually see, explaining what’s happening and what they think, instead of showing us spooks snooping, sneaking, and tidying up loose ends. For men of secrets, they certainly are a chatty lot.
After a botched operation to uncover a mole within their own ranks, the chief of British Intelligence (John Hurt) and his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced into retirement. However, Smiley’s civilian overseer believes that Smiley can uncover the mole better from the outside in, using Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s still with the service, as his inside man.
Visually, the movie does more to conceal than reveal. Smiley is now on the outside looking in, and the cinematography reflects that. Suspects, allies, and even Smiley himself are often shown from behind windows, and from a distance. We share Smiley’s alienation from his own world. But Smiley is often staged with his back to us, so we don’t really connect with him either. Although Smiley has built up years of experience with his fellow agents, we lack his familiarity, as we’re only permitted to catch a glimpse of potential culprits. We just don’t share in his sense of betrayal, to himself and to his country. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema favors attached, hard shadows, obscuring faces–even Smiley’s. It’s a world where no one can be trusted.
Overall, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy goes for mystery, but ends up merely murky. It’s heavy on back-stories and flashback, and Smiley doesn’t make an interesting center for the world of the story. His scenes lack tension, as he spends much of the movie sitting down and listening to others—who are too willing to tell their stories—and doesn’t do much, often acting through other spies. Where The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a character in search of a story, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an atmosphere of paranoia, in search of both a story and a character.