The Reel Deal
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
A Reel Deal Film Review
Film Insight by Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5
“AN INTELLECTUAL GAME OF WHACK-A-MOLE”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is so cold in its calculations, so mathematical in its precision, so actionless in its action, so washed out in its color palette–so utterly British in every way–that it seems to me a pleasantly odd irony that it was made by a Swedish director. Who’d have guessed that in making his first English-language film, Tomas Alfredson, a non-Brit, could have pulled off this Anglo-fest so brilliantly? It’s as though he’s been a Brit the whole time without knowing it. Or is he just good at acting British? Is he a mole for Continental cinema? A double agent in European celluloid?
Regardless, Alfredson’s film is a taut British thriller for the intellectual sort. This is not an action movie in the slightest–in fact, little action seems to actually take place. Though characters are in constant movement, like pieces on a chess board, the action can seem, well, actionless.
Tinker Tailor is filled with characters constantly looking for a mole–all these characters, I might add, played perfectly by one of the best ensemble casts in recent years (SAG award here they come!!)–but the film never loses its more important thematic focus: the entire mechanism in play, the chess game, which is the world itself, and specifically in relationship to the enigmatic aura of Cold War politics. Based on John Le Carré’s novel of the same name, it encompasses a story of British Intelligence in the early 1970s. The Circus, a stand in for MI6, is trying to weed out a mole supposedly in its ranks. The search for the mole is central, but also feels periphery. Even though the attempt to discover the mole propels each scene forward, it doesn’t overwhelm the film.
Maybe rather than a chess game, perhaps the more apt metaphor is an intellectual game of “Whack-A-Mole” if you will: the whacking of the mole in a game of “Whack-A-Mole” has little to do with the actual mole and more to do with making precise motions, specifically the striking motion of the mallet. It’s a mechanical game, where you go through the motions. And like a game of “Whack-A-Mole,” very little feels at stake in the film’s world of ambiguousness and ambivalence. In fact, by the time the game is finished, the high stakes–which never seemed emphasized in the first place–appear all but irrelevant. The rooting out of the double agent doesn’t turn the tide of the Cold War, in fact it’s implications are hardly mentioned, much less emphasized. It’s very anti-climactic, but not without climax, in its weird way. And yet, that’s the point. The lack of great stakes or dramatic climax are not flaws of the film, but it’s greatest asset. Right and wrong, good and evil, ideological differences, these all seem to fade away, and all that’s left is the grinding mechanism of it all–an aesthetic exercise in the unravelling of this dreary world. A chess game, intellectual Whack-A-Mole, whatever you want to call it: the game keeps on, and who wins is rather irrelevant.
There is talk of aesthetics and morality in the film, and I think in this we can find an in as to why the film looks and feels the way it does. It’s sadly rare that we see a film, like Tinker Tailor, whose aesthetics directly match its thematic aims, which in turn work perfectly with the narrative itself. Finally we have in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a film as mechanical, ambivalent and (dare I say?) lifeless as its subject, that still manages to be utterly engaging. It’s an absolute delight to watch, almost in spite of itself.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film directed by Tomas Alfredson, and written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the book by John Le Carré. It stars Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones and John Hurt. In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6′s echelons.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Focus Features
Design by Jillian Mercado
Press Photo from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Photography Courtesy of Focus Features