In Review: ‘Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy’

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By Caitlin Gardner

Like many adapted works of John le Carre, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy is a film that un-romanticizes spying and covert intelligence. Full of washed out colors and chilly performances delivered by an all-star cast of British actors, Tomas Alfredsson (who re-defined the vampire genre with Let the Right One In) delivers one of the best films of 2011.

The British have seen their empire fall in not just influence but in the intelligence community, seeing its ‘little brother,’ the United States, surpass them in every category during the height of the Cold War with Thatcherism soon closing in.  Yet ‘the Circus,’ aka MI6 (British equivalent to the CIA), gets caught in the middle of a blown operation involving one of their top agents Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) that forces MI6 head Control (John Hurt) and his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) into retirement. Somebody from the very top of MI6 had to have been the one to blow the cover of Strong’s agent Prideaux and ‘the whodunnit?’ among four possible players forms the basis of the movie.

For every agent and player in ‘the Circus,’ you see a remarkable intelligence, wit, cynicism, bravado, charm, and intimidating nature to themselves. Even Gary Oldman’s Smiley, under a cake of prosthetic aging makeup, has a ‘silent killer’ quality that never feels out of place and shows that, despite very little explosions and arms fired during the film, the men of MI6 are very capable of doing anything – one of its men even betrays his own agency in favor of the Soviet Union.

The film is intelligently handled with a non-linear timeline that goes back and forth, showing how characters have picked up on what they know – or think they know – about others and what has become of those caught in the middle of Operation Witchcraft.  There is an especially darkly humorous office Christmas party that combines Santa, Lenin, and the Soviet National Anthem, a song to which even the secretaries know all the words. But the movie has men who are damaged, trying to move on but unable to fully leave what they dedicated their life to do, such as the case with Strong’s Prideaux. Oldman stands out in an understated fashion, but it is hard to ignore the old guard of British film actors like Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Strong, who themselves are followed by the emerging actors in Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy.

The film does not cheat in the reveal of who sold out Prideaux in Instanbul and the ending is more than satisfying (though the ending differs from its source material), but what really makes Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy is what Alfredson captures in the surroundings of these men.  Much of the scenes take place at headquarters, and Alfredson indulges in the sinister remodeling of the building’s modernist architecture to convey the sense of secrecy. Alfredson’s taste for the color palate and design of the 70s remind me a lot of David Fincher’s Zodiac by showing a generation not taking to hard rock or disco, but instead looking and trying to be in the times but just looking awful with an air of malaise. Alfredson and the production design team deserve all of the credit for not looking out of place in retelling this Cold War story.

Even though the Cold War has long since past, cerebral thrillers do not come around too often. This film is a real treat and one of the best of 2011. Alfredson does not try to tie anything of the present to the past or even seem nostalgic about the past but rather gives a story of great men trying to unlock conspiracy and deception from within. It is hard to believe not many films like this are made, but it is most likely that few like Alfredson can make this kind of film so well.

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