Friday, 23 September 2011

REVIEW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The trailer for this was incredible by the way.

I've always had a somewhat adversarial relationship with films built entirely around plot. I understand many, many people believe plot to be the most important and engaging aspect of fiction full stop. In sheer number, I doubt any opposing genre can compete with the amount of mystery novels shifted each year, or the amount of viewers police procedurals pull in every week. But I can't help but think that viewing plot as the most interesting aspect of fiction is somehow reductive of it, that viewing it most giddily through the prism of what happens next is the right side of the brain trying to claim ownership of the left side's rightful playground. The most exciting thing about fiction is the characters and worlds it can create, the perspectives and ideas it can communicate and the atmospheres and moods it can explore. Plot to me seems like an extension of the structure, something that exists as a means to an end. So everything can be said with coherency.

Plot is a completely necessary part of the process, but making it the reason for everything makes your work sort of baseless, without root in any point or meaning. You're just a puzzle to be solved. This doesn't mean a plot heavy film can't be great, LA Confidential is one of m favorite films, but it has to place it through the prism of it's characters. This is why I was less enamored with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo than everyone else and it will be the reason I'm less enamored with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than everyone else. Superficially, it's an exquisite piece of film-making, with all the sets and photography looking absolutely beautiful and Tomas Alfredson's direction creating a remarkably controlled, consuming sense of paranoia that keeps you uncomfortable throughout. The performances are uniformly excellent. Although Gary Oldman's first starring role in quite some time will remind everyone of just how good he is capable of being, and in a performance quite unlike any he's given before, something entirely internal yet with his usual presence. His George Smiley is like a ghost, everywhere but nowhere, silent but taking in everything. A bafta nomination for sure, and maybe an Oscar nomination.

The likes of Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Mark Strong make for a strong supporting cast, Jones makes a strong impression as a particularly cutthroat bureaucrat and it was nice to get to see Strong play a more sensitive role than he is usually allowed to do. I was most impressed however by Benedict Cumberbatch, who in a performance as Oldman's subordinate, continues to build on the good will he's earned from Sherlock and many other projects. A couple of people strike a bum note, John Hurt was a little hammy and ill at ease with the film's underplayed tone, as was Kathy Burke. But certainly the performance you'll notice and remember is Oldman's. But for a film this deeply steeped in plot, I'm afraid you need to pack a stronger punch than this story had to pack. I liked that this was a slightly more realistic take on the spy world, but the end was predictable, largely in part to the casting, and because of the way the film had previously played. Spending so much time unraveling meant that relationships and dynamics had to be implied as opposed to seen, and I think the film had a lot less emotional impact than it was supposed.

My problem with the film is that at its core it's a potboiler, a story about what happens on the next page and never about what is happening on this one. For all the excellent performances and surface aesthetics, which again are stunning, the simple act of time passing doesn't turn a thriller into an art film, and I get the slight impression that Alfredson thinks it does. Be that as it may, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is quite a way better than the usual junk you see at the cinemas, and is an incredibly rich and cultured piece of pulp for Guardian readers. Bu instant classic, maybe not quite.

Rating: 7/10

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