Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Early Review: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a beautifully crafted, wonderfully absorbing cinematic treat

Film Rating: A

I recently had a conversation via Facebook with my editor over at The Denver Post’s YourHub, and as we talked about upcoming movies, one of the films that came up was “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”  I’d been excited about it because of the positive word of mouth and amazing cast, but unlike my editor, a fan of the original John le CarrĂ© novel and BBC miniseries, I was unfamiliar with the source material.  He told me he envied my first exposure to the story, and having now seen Tomas Alfredson’s masterful cinematic adaptation, I see where he was coming from.  Going in cold to such a rich story is a real gift.  There is so much to discover and explore in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and I had a wonderful time drowning myself in this fascinating universe of British Cold War espionage without any preconceived notions about the story or characters to cloud my vision.  This is one of the greatest cinematic treats of 2011, a film I could see becoming one of my go-to favorites as I revisit it again and again in the future.  Continue Reading after the jump...

The story revolves around a hunt for a Soviet double agent working in the upper echelons of British Intelligence.  After an operation to learn the mole’s identity in Budapest goes south, sparking an international incident, ‘Control’ (John Hurt), the head of the “Circus” (the nickname for the fictional MI6 headquarters located in Cambridge Circus, London), and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced into retirement, with those put into power assuming Control was wrong about there being a double agent.  Many months later, however, new evidence comes to light about the possibility of a mole, and the civil servant in charge of Intelligence brings Smiley out of retirement to investigate Circus. 

That’s all you need to know going in.  There’s so much more to this story than I dare spoil here, but it should be noted that to appreciate and understand that story, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” requires one’s full attention.  This is not an experience meant for passive viewers, but for those willing to really engage themselves in the narrative.  The film is absolutely dense with characters, spy jargon, exposition and more, and it is all doled out in a thick, novelistic structure.  Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan aren’t interested in pandering, either, never pausing to further illuminate tricky plot points.  That being said, the film is written and crafted with the utmost clarity; whether in the form of a lengthily monologue or a quick glance between characters, the viewer is given all the information they need to keep up, so long as one pays attention at every turn.  This will no doubt frustrate some filmgoers looking for a more casual experience, but I found this intelligent, dense structure riveting.  The story is so expertly constructed and presented that I blamed myself, not the film, for the few moments when I felt confused.

Even more impressive is how cinematically this thick, complicated story is presented.  Under Tomas Alfredson’s inspired direction, the film is just as much a visual powerhouse as it is a narrative one.  The production design transcends mere period accuracy, transporting us to a wonderfully foreign time and place.  Perhaps this is just my fascination with British spy culture, but I found sights like the Circus offices or padded soundproof conference room just as fantastic and awe-inspiring as a child would Narnia or Hogwarts.  Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema captures it all beautifully, using warm, rich colors and filling every last inch of the wide ‘scope’ frame with detail; each shot is a gorgeously composed work of art.  The measured pacing and patient editing – along with an extremely strong ambient score by Alberto Iglesias – complete an atmosphere that is at once both invitingly laid-back and exceedingly urgent.  Alfredson, in total command of the film’s tone at all times, even sprinkles in a few moments of winking fun – his choice of song for the film’s closing montage put a great big smile on my face that is only just starting to fade.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam
Then there are the performances – Good God, the performances.  Alfredson has assembled what may very well be the best ensemble of 2011, a cast filled top to bottom with tremendous British actors, many of them doing career-best work.  Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and more; I would love nothing more than to devote a paragraph to each performance, but that would take far too long.  Quick thoughts on a select few, then: Benedict Cumberbatch (a.k.a Sherlock Holmes from the recent BBC revival) nearly steals the show as Smiley’s right-hand man, brilliant, capable, and vulnerable all at the same time; as “scalphunter” Jim Prideaux, Mark Strong gets to show a warmer side than most of his roles have allowed, lending this film a healthy dose of humanity; Tom Hardy has to carry the heftiest chunk of exposition, and does so effectively while simultaneously crafting a three-dimensional character; John Hurt continues to prove that no one is better at playing a lovable old bastard; and finally, I quite frankly enjoyed Colin Firth more in this than his Oscar-winning role in “The King’s Speech.” 

But the one performance I must devote a paragraph to is the lead, Gary Oldman, because this remarkable piece of acting is worth the attention.  George Smiley is an emotionally closeted character, a man whose lifetime in the spy business has taught him to bury all thoughts deep, deep down.  He doesn’t even speak much, talking only when he feels it is absolutely necessary.  Yet behind that silent, expressionless face, Oldman is able to convey volumes about the inner workings of this mysterious man.  It is a precise and subtle performance that Oldman is in complete command of, sinking so fully into this character that he is, at times, physically and vocally unrecognizable.  In the few scenes where Smiley opens his mouth and talks, Oldman is even more impressive; Smiley never talks about himself, of course, but we gleam so much about him from his inflections, the way he uses language.  Oldman is one of my very favorite actors, and I have never seen him give a better performance than this one.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was an absolute revelation for me, but the craftsmanship is so remarkable, the story told with such clarity, that I expect fans of the book or miniseries will be similarly impressed.  Though a mystery, the film isn’t structured in such a way that knowing all the secrets renders it uninteresting.  It is riveting for many more reasons – the characters, the performances, the relationships, the atmosphere, the visuals, the layered conversations, and most importantly of all, the richly detailed, beautifully foreign universe that is the Circus.  All of that can be appreciated separate from the mystery, and just I suspect I will have tremendous amounts of fun revisiting the film in the future, long-time fans of the source material should be blown away.  “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is one of the great cinematic achievements of 2011, and earns my highest recommendation.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is currently playing in limited release in select cities; it will expand to Denver, at the Landmark Chez Artiste (and possibly others), on Friday, December 23rd 

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