I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy earlier this afternoon as a part of my Long Weekend Movie Marathon. I have been waiting for this movie to play in the local cinemas but, well. War Horse got cancelled even though we’d heard that it was going to be playing here (it was the reason I had to write several pages worth of original article in the last month’s issue of TFI). I didn’t hold out much hope that TTSS was going to play here, especially because I didn’t even hear rumors about it playing here.
I was afraid that the movie wasn’t going to live up to its hype but I had my doubts cleared away by the movie right from the beginning.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had a very slow beginning. If anyone wanted a stylish or exhilarating Bond or Bourne-style espionage action movie, they are not going to find that here. The first half hour of TTSS dragged – slowly. It played out like an art house film in that it seemed to heavily indulge the director’s style instead of supporting the story. I’ve read the book by John le Carré and even the book’s beginning was more exciting than this movie’s. Thankfully, I’ve been reliable informed by various reviews previously that it wasn’t going to start with a bang so I patiently waited for the story to pick up after a round of character introductions.
Structurally-speaking, this is a messy movie to follow. There are loads – truckloads – of flashbacks and they often happen in the middle of a sequence. There’s almost no mark or sign for the start of the flashbacks so the first time it happens, I was a bit jarred. This is, for me, a double-edged sword. Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director who made the vampire movie Let The Right One In, is walking on a fine line between confusion and edgy tension by doing this. Luckily, he managed to get off on the right side of that line – the flashbacks gave the story a more layered structure, making it quite rich, and it builds up the movie in a suspenseful way that keeps you right on the edge of your seat. They made me want to know what’ll happen – appropriately it feels like reading a book and wanting to turn a page right away to find out what happens next – while at the same time providing us with back stories. This is probably not the most effective way to build up the tension, but I enjoyed it.
The one thing I liked about the script is that, even if you haven’t read the book or seen previous screen adaptations of the story, it works on its own. If you have read the book and known about the story, good for you. But if not, then there are no worries as you get the freedom to discover things as they unravel on screen. It’s a slow unraveling, perhaps, but it’s definitely an intriguing one.
It’s a quiet movie. There are no explosions. The violence, while quite gory, happens only intermittently throughout the entire film. The characters don’t raise their voices dramatically, except when they’re really angry, and they don’t really get to do any obvious physical action. This is the thinking man’s espionage flick; it’s almost as if the movie was made several decades ago, when studios don’t have that big a budget to make shiny gadget-ridden movies and have to rely on plot and performance only. It’s subtle, exquisite and highly intelligent.
And, oh, the cinematography! The entire movie is an eyegasm – I could just look at it all day long and not get bored. Have I mentioned how gorgeous the set design is? This is period movie at its best. I hated the hairstyles (seriously!), I marveled at the suits, I laughed at the cars, and I was delighted by the presence of actual telephones (phone boxes!) in it. And I wanted to be in it. I wanted to be transported back to that era and be where the people in the movie had been. But not just that, they were also lensed in a delicate way that didn’t come across as pretentious as well. Angled in certain ways, the camera is meant to capture that sense of suspense. It wasn’t really about the details – they were apparently already and didn’t need be highlighted – but it was about the storytelling… and it works.
Then, of course, there are the performances. The hype about the ensemble cast has been buzzing ever since the line-up is announced. This is a natural reaction given that we have almost all of Britain’s best male actors in it. Even now I’m not sure how they managed to assemble this group of people under the same direction. It’s epic.
But the stars’ names and reputations are not the only epic thing about them. Their performances, too, were epic and worth all the fuss everyone else made about them. I can honestly say that this is a heady film to watch, based solely on the performances alone. It would bring shivers down your spine when you see the likes of Gary Oldman, Toby Jones, John Hurt and Colin FIrth in the same camera. When Hurt and Mark Strong appeared together at the beginning of the movie, I nearly exploded in awe. And that’s not even the most amazing one – the office party scene that everyone attended, which was told in several flashbacks, had to be the most brilliant gathering of these actors that Alfredson made. My head got dizzy from seeing the assembly. It was just too good.
Oldman’s acting deserves commendation but that’s to be expected. I believe now that Gary Oldman can play anything and make me believe it. So I wasn’t worried about him. Same goes for the more seasoned actors in the film. John Hurt, especially, was very classy. I wished there were more of him.
What I worried about was the ‘youngsters’ who were joining the greats, namely Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy. I’m pleased to report that Cumberbatch is his usual exquisite self. He’s on his way to convincing me that he can play anything and everything and make me believe it as well. In a way, seeing him play Peter Guillam, who is essentially in this film being tutored by Oldman’s George Smiley, is like seeing the senior actor mentoring the junior. Their interactions were a delight to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Cumberbatch ended up being the new Gary Oldman!
But Tom Hardy, I have to admit, is something else. He is – how can I put this – extremely captivating. He’s one of those actors that really just demands your attention. He had terrible hair in this film and was sporting a scruffy, dirty look that was not at all sexy. Yet when he showed up, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. And he hadn’t even started saying a single word! His screen presence is so strong; it’s impossible to ignore him in any scene even when there are handsomer, more dapper men around. Of course, it also helps that the man can act. I loved all of his scenes. Ricki Tarr by far had the more exciting adventures in the story – wooing a Russian lady, making love to her, having to run from the Circus’ authorities, going into hiding, etc. – so any scene Tarr was in was guaranteed not to make you fall asleep. I wish there were more.
The ending of the film could not have been more dramatic. The revelation of the mole had me biting my nails for its prolonged suspense.
*** SPOILER ALERT ***
That it was Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) didn’t surprise me much but I still gasped and said an emphatic “f*ck, really?” when I found out. The slow revelation of his identity as the mole was simply agonizing so that even when I had guessed it, I still felt blown away. His final confrontation with Smiley, and later with Strong’s Jim Prideaux, was among the best scenes in the movie. With Smiley, it was a scene where a lot of things were said but it felt like there were some hidden secrets left unsaid, especially regarding Karla. With Prideaux, it was a scene where no words were exchanged but, through a single glance and a single shot, everything was said. My heart really bled at Haydon’s final moments in the film. Even if he was supposed to be “the bad guy”, I couldn’t help but feel saddened by the whole thing.
Conversely, the final shot of the film – of Smiley returning to the Circus to the tunes of La Mer – is a triumphant closing to what is a fine example of European filmmaking excellence. It’s stylish, it’s inspiring and it’s thrilling all at the same time. I have to say, leave it to the Brits (and Swedes) to come up with a kick-ass ending that leaves a lasting impression. I would not be forgetting that shot for a long time.
It’s not a movie for everybody, though. Some might accuse this movie to be a little draggy and boring and I know that just because I’m in awe of the casting, it doesn’t other people will get just what the big deal is. This adaptation is a bit too niche for the general public. But as far as adaptations go, this is one film that I might just prefer over the book. Of course that means I have to finish the le Carré book so I can really prove that this is exactly the case.
I wonder if they’re going to make the sequels. I certainly wouldn’t mind if they do (le Carré wrote more books in what is dubbed ‘the Karla trilogy, after all) but even if they don’t, I would already be pleased with just this one.
Finally, here are some random thoughts that popped into my head while I was watching this movie:
1. Amazingly enough, for a movie that has so many men in it, this movie doesn’t have bromance. What it does have are actual male/male relationships. Shocking!
2. Oh god, hand me a pair of scissors or a shaver. I really need to get those hairstyles off these guys.
3. Damn you, Simon McBurney. One look at you buttering a piece of toast makes me want to do the same. I don’t mean just eating the toast – I want to butter it as well!
4. Do people still play squash anymore? And where in the world is George Smiley swimming at?
5. Poor Guillam. Poor, poor Guillam. But Benedict, you can drive me around in that funny looking vintage care of yours anytime you like.
6. I really wanted to hate Svetlana Khodchenkova for having an intimate scene with Tom Hardy, but I can’t. I pity any woman who has to put up with THAT hairstyle. (I’m sorry, I just don’t get that hair.)
7. Who would be playing these characters if they were all female? I’m pretty sure Kate Winslet would be in it, though.
8. Who would be playing these characters if they were all under 30? Please let Ben Barnes be in it.
9. The Swedes are coming.
10. OK, so despite their hairstyles, I want a Cumberbatch/Hardy RPF. Can you blame a fangirl?
Trust me, this is a fun film to watch… if you know what to look for. 😉