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Review: Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

Gary Oldman, a bunch of bald guys, and a whole lot of typewriters star in this curio cabinet John le Carré adaptation.

Appropriately for a movie that's all about sealed-off spaces—physical and psychological—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens with a man knocking on a door. Shriveled old John Hurt opens it a crack, uttering the first words of the film: "You weren't followed?"

After the man (later revealed as Jim Prideaux, a fellow SIS agent played by Mark Strong) says "no," Hurt lets him into his musty flat. Hurt's walls are lined with sagging bookshelves; all remaining space has been filled with stacks of files and folders. This mise-en-scene is pure wunderkammer—so fixated on cramming every inch of the frame with knickknacks, piles of papers, obsolete technologies (production designer Maria Djurkovic must've been given one hell of a typewriter budget), and accumulated dust that the characters themselves begin to resemble rare, preserved specimens. 

Tomas Alfredson's John le Carré adaptation is a Cold War curio cabinet. Nowhere is this more evident than in the green-hued, bunker-like SIS headquarters, which get traversed by gliding camera movements,  space-folding zooms, and dumbwaiter POV shots (!) in the film's opening scenes. A miniaturized, outdated-looking world is criss-crossed and cross-referenced, and that old workhorse of oblique filmmaking—photographing characters through panes of glass—gets trotted out to give all of the actors the pinned-insect look.   

The SIS building is just one of the movie's many hermetically-sealed spaces; there's the aforementioned cluttered apartment, the enclosed Hungarian street where Prideaux is shot at the beginning of the film, the safehouse where a group of agents regularly meet with their Soviet informant, the tiny house where a captured double-agent is eventually kept, and, most strikingly, the orange sound-proofed room where the SIS bigwigs get briefed—itself a coup of nearly abstract set design. And, on a slightly larger scale, there's the setting of the film itself—a totally insular Cold War where ideology and politics are conspicuously absent. The film's sense of narrative efficiency eliminates everyone and everything that isn't a direct participant in its human chess game. 

Like Alfredson's Let the Right One In, Tinker, Tailor is a smart-but-hardly-heady genre piece which picks a handful of influences and boils them down to into pliable notions that can then be used to form a style; as far as utterly derivative filmmaking goes, it's pretty damn good. Alfredson's two major points-of-reference in Tinker, Tailor appear to be the later films of Jean-Pierre Melville (who seemed to be the dominant influence the first time I saw the film, projected) and the current work of David Fincher (whose influence seemed to dominate my second viewing, from DVD).

From Melville, Alfredson borrows the funereal color palette, doomed atmosphere, production design, laconic protagonist (Gary Oldman, as retired spy George Smiley, doesn't say a word until 18 minutes into the film), and focus on men's clothing as an indicator of character (Benedict Cumberbatch's ties, Oldman's glasses, David Dencik's bowtie, and Colin Firth's desert boots all send out signals); Melville's beloved Citroën DS even makes an appearance. But—as usually happens in these kinds of stylistic transpositions—Alfredson's extended Melville homage creates an opposite effect. Melville's eccentricities gave pulp plots existential depth; Alfredson's fixations create a closed system of indicators and clues. This is partly due to the fact that Alfredson is more of a straight-up genre craftsman than Melville ever was. Concerned with scope, Melville's sensibility was essentially literary, while Alfredson's is purely narrative; it's all about economy. Even the movie's showpiece monologue is nothing but plot and character psychology. 

From Fincher comes the film's visual geometry (including an obsession with lines perpendicular to the top and bottom of the frame), subtly low angles, trick establishing shots, hyper-realistic lighting, and detailed sense of process and causality (a scene of Gary Oldman going to the optometrist—which plays under the opening credits—has a strong Fincherian flavor). George Smiley (Oldman, in a scary / lethargic bit of acting craft that sometimes recalls his elderly Dracula) is tasked with ferreting out a Soviet mole who is believed to be one of four men (played by David Dencik, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds and Toby Jones) with whom Smiley served under the direction of the recently-deceased Control (Hurt). That, until the big reveal, the film builds a convincing case for all four of them—without ever resorting to red herrings—makes the mole's identity completely arbitrary, which is more or less the point. 

Tinker, Tailor's Cold War functions as a sort of nature preserve where clammy, balding men in brownish '70s suits are allowed to engage in a brutal, largely joyless game that has nothing to do with political struggle. When the Soviet mole is finally caught red-handed, he is guaranteed a prisoner exchange with Moscow in return for a British agent. Imprisoned and awaiting his handover to the USSR, he has nothing to say for himself other than the fact that he'll miss not being able to go to cricket games.

"I had to pick a side, and it was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one," the mole says. "The West has become so very ugly, don't you think?" It's Political Nihilism 101, as stripped-down and simple as the film's relentless (albeit largo) sense of pace.

Off topic, but are you guys going to do a “best of 2011” show? Sorry your plug got pulled btw. Hope you rectify this situation soon!
Thanks Ignatiy for this wonderful review. Glad to see your writing on here again.
Adrock, We are indeed doing a Best Of. I should note, though, that our plug didn’t get pulled — to keep the metaphor going, we unplugged ourselves in the interest of saving energy. Once a stable power source is found, we’ll plug ourselves back in.
“[The] Cold War functions as a sort of nature preserve where clammy, balding men in brownish ’70s suits are allowed to engage in a brutal, largely joyless game that has nothing to do with political struggle.” This also sounds like Preminger’s (and Graham Greene’s) THE HUMAN FACTOR, no? I’m surprised you didn’t bring that up. In any case, you’ve definitely whet my appetite for this movie.
I’m surprised I didn’t bring it up either, considering it did come up in discussions with Danny while I was writing this. However, I feel like Preminger & Greene are interested in questions of psychology and motivation that this film / Le Carre just aren’t all that into. There’s always a “Why?” going on in The Human Factor, which isn’t the case here; if you were to ask why anyone does anything in this movie, the answer would probably be: “Isn’t it obvious? ‘cause the world sucks and everybody’s gotta do something.”
I really REALLY want to see this.
A truly APPALLING film. A travesty of a great book. Not in the same class as the famous BBC film of the 70s. 0/10 if I am generous.

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