Friday, January 13, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In ex-British spy John le Carré’s Cold War novels about his former profession, the main weapons are intellectual brilliance and psychological acuity and the prize is a secret concealed within a secret. You wouldn’t think something that heady would be very cinematic. But the winner in le Carré’s mind games is generally the best watcher, the one who notices the most about his environment and the people around him, and that makes his stories ideally suited to a visual medium like film.

While body-rush fantasies like the Mission Impossible TV and movie series turn the spy/counterspy game into a question of who has the best techno-toys (and, in the movies, Xtreme fighting skills), le Carré is pure head rush, a mental game with the added thrill of feeling scarily plausible. Done well, films of his stories sharpen your senses, making you notice things and tune into frequencies you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up on. They give you the psychological equivalent of the thrill you imagined experiencing as a kid if you’d bought a pair of those X-ray vision glasses they used to advertise in comic books. And Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the latest adaptation of one of the author’s George Smiley books, is very well done indeed.

Just five minutes or so into the film comes the climactic confrontation that’s later referred to as “that bloody mess in Budapest,” a charged encounter in a public plaza that ends, shockingly, in a shooting, after a slow accretion of reaction shots and significant looks has created a dense sense of dread. The psychological and political shockwaves set off by that shooting—-which is almost the only one in the film—-reverberate through the rest of the layered, time-shifting narrative.

This might really be how it feels to be a spy, you think, especially once George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a self-contained reluctant retiree with a don’t-mind-me demeanor so convincing that even his own wife blows him off, emerges as the fulcrum of the plot. A former MI6 agent, Smiley is enlisted to find out which of the men at the top of the agency is a mole planted by the KGB. The still center in the eye of a hurricane, Smiley says little and does less, lying in wait like a lizard that flicks its tongue out just far enough to zap a passing tidbit of intelligence.

Director Tomas Alfredson proves that the eerie intensity of Let the Right One In was no fluke, often showing us one thing while telling us another to maximize the data conveyed as he leads us through a complex maze of information and misinformation, making the way clear though never simple. Hoyte Van Hoytema’s camera often seems to catch key encounters out of the corner of its eye, making sure we absorb details whose importance we learn only later. You feel yourself learning to watch differently during the course of the film, looking more closely and questioning appearances more than you usually would.

Alfredson, screenwriter Bridget O'Connor, and editor Dino Jonsäter give us just as much information as we need, never clogging up the works with clunky exposition. When Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the young agent Smiley enlists to help him root out the mole, has to break up with his partner to cut off the risk of blackmail, one short, near wordless, beautifully underplayed scene is all we need to feel the weight of the sacrifices these agents make for their jobs.

Oldman’s performance (he says he based in partly on le Carré himself and partly on Alec Guiness’ seminal portrayal of Smiley in the great late-‘70s BBC-TV series) is a study in minimalism. It’s also a triumph for an actor who came out of the chute like a bucking bronco, specializing for years, in movies like Sid and Nancy, JFK, True Romance, and Leon: The Professional, in tormented geniuses or psychotic villains. But lately, as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series, Lieutenant Gordon in The Dark Knight, and now Smiley, he seems to be specializing in doing more with less.

Like the movie itself, Oldman's performance is a small but flawless and expertly cut gem. It may not knock you out at first glance, but the longer and closer you look, the more compelling it gets.

Written for TimeOff

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