Dec 28, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This was my most anticipated film of the movie season. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Simon McBurney, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds (I do not much care for the Cumberbatch, sorry): British thespian wet dream central! Plus, it is directed by Tomas Alfredson, who gave us the extraordinary vampire movie Let The Right One In.
I confess: I have never been able to finish John Le Carré's novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (tried twice), I have never read any of his other books and I never saw the adaptations with Alec Guinness. But I can tell you this: I was a little bored. I did not mind the grainy, brackish hues of the cinematography and I loved the cumbersome apparatuses that spies relied on in those days; rotary phones, big ass typewriters in code and enormous recording devices. No cellphones, no email, no internet, no satellites. Spying was a more intimate, dangerous affair. I appreciate Le Carré's doggedly realistic contribution to the genre. James Bond, this ain't. Spying is hard, sometimes bureaucratic, painstaking work; it's not all martinis, bananaphones (as in Maxwell Smart) and chicks, he will have you know. There is something quaint about this nostalgia for the Cold War and the games that the Eastern bloc played with the West. They all seem futile in hindsight, but what do I know.
All that fake seventies hair distracted me. Why is Tom Hardy wearing such a terrible blond wig? Is it because he is a spy on the lam? But something else did not work. As great as Gary Oldman is, his performance is so understated as to feel absent. He seems like a hollow at the center of the movie. Not that he should be Sean Connery, but you don't get from him the piercing intelligence you get just by looking at a photo of Alec Guinness as Smiley.
All that Karla business (Karla is the Russian spymaster), and trying to find who is the Soviet mole among this group of British spies sounds very exciting on paper. But the movie is not as bracing as it could be because most of it is told in flashbacks, which somehow dulls the sense of urgency, and can be a bit confusing. There is a key scene where Smiley recounts his one tete a tete with Karla. It feels central to the film, but all that telling instead of showing makes the film tedious. The movie does get much more exciting towards the end, after all that back and forth, as Smiley gets closer to nailing the mole, even if it is not exactly clear how he got there. This story intimates that something personal is at the root of spying. In the end, it is men or women who burrow into other people's lives, and files.  At the center of the mole business is the hint of a homosexual relationship between Colin Firth and Mark Strong (bring it!), and there is an aura of dulled pain suffusing the whole thing. Smiley broods because his wife has left him; Firth and Strong are the love that dare not speak its name, Hardy is desperate to save a woman he loves. Alas, there too much of a fog around them to make them connect with the audience.
I hope Firth doesn't get typecast as the silent suffering gay, since he makes it work as wonderfully here, and with a lot more panache, as he did in A Single Man. He is a splendid actor. John Hurt is the liveliest of the bunch as Control, the head British spy. He is a lot of fun to watch. The rest of the cast is very solid, but none of the characters get enough screen time to make an impression, except for Strong, and Tom Hardy, who appears briefly but nails his part as a spy who has been left in the cold.

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