Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Dir. Tomas Alfredson. Starring Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong

I’ve been thinking about this (slightly old) article by Matt Zoller Seitz in which he argues that Leonardo DiCaprio’s then-presumed Best Actor award for The Revenant would be symbolic of the way we’ve become inclined to think about acting performances as much as for what’s off the screen as on it. “If you want that little gold man,” he says, “you’ve got to pay some kind of physical price.” Since De Niro in Raging Bull, frequently given as one of the superlative American performances of the past fifty years, the list of men and women alike who have done something “physical” and been acclaimed for it is dizzying. Daniel Day-Lewis lives in this space, as does Christian Bale. (Johnny Depp lives here too even if the value of his real estate has cratered.) This is Charlize Theron’s win for Monster, David O. Russell collaborators, and Black Swan. Of course, DiCaprio himself falls in this category after winning for The Revenant. There is a taste we have for actors who have obviously changed themselves, like they get bonus points for how long it takes to remove the makeup or for how many skills their publicists tell us they acquired for a role. Roles that do not require this kind of obvious shape-shifting get short shrift. Gary Oldman, after a long stretch in which he became famous for roles like that (DraculaSid and NancyHannibal) is a master of this interior acting; even if he is capable of “becoming” a role or burying himself behind makeup and costume, he is at his best when he doesn’t need those to do the work for him. Anthony Hopkins lives here. So do Michael Shannon, Naomi Watts, and Saiorse Ronan. And of these roles which are built not by the outside but the inside, George Smiley is king. Oldman plays a middle-aged guy who needs glasses and wears a suit. He never raises his voice, rarely delivers monologues, and has a single facial expression. Even a subtle ratcheting up in his affect becomes enormously compelling, like a sudden rustling in the trees on a windless day causes us to turn our heads.

The scene where Smiley tells Guillam (Cumberbatch) about a meeting he had trying to convince a Soviet spy to defect to the West is emblematic of the worst clichés of spy movies. The grizzled old vet recounting, in a lengthy monologue, some symbolically important moment which bears a surprisingly meaningful connection to the present is difficult at the best of times. It’s too often played as a way to reset the tempo after some pulse-racing scene, which is of course more interesting than the exposition which follows. But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is different. It does not have a thump-thump-thump antecedent before Guillam takes a seat in Smiley’s hotel room; there is no car chase, no gunplay. So when Smiley reveals that he had one of the most personal conversations he’s had in the past goodness knows how many years with Karla, the Soviet bogeyman who is masterminding their intelligence operations, it lands with no interference from noisy distractions. It is a quiet scene, in the dull tones that bleed through every centimeter of the frame, and then the camera moves directly in front of Oldman’s face. He doesn’t look into it, of course—it’s not that kind of movie—but his gaze is somewhere just above the camera as he mutters the words that he had spoken to his nemesis. “We are not so very different, you and I,” he says, the light barely even glinting off of his enormous glasses. For Smiley, the career he was forced out of and is returning to in a fabulously understated dramatic way is about loyalty and not about nations, or rightness, or the Queen. For Karla, he says, it’s a question of fanaticism; because Karla is a fanatic, he can doubt. Smiley has no use for it, and in that scene there is a lode to mine. It’s one of the best scenes from any movie of the past ten years because of acting and cinematography and editing and general execution, sure, but also because it sets the standard for what that kind of sequence can be. By the same standard, the sequence where Guillam steals a glorified notebook from a glorified high school locker is a headrush of nervousness. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy excels at keeping its tremors tightly bound and never overstepping a limit which would topple the movie’s delicate balance; if you’ve never experienced an earthquake before, a 6.0 will be a little nerve-wracking. It’s why a scene which ostensibly takes place at an airport is a real clanger; it’s obviously not filmed in front of an airplane, which totally blows this movie’s cover.

In the grand continuum of British costume dramas chock full o’ name-brand actors, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ranks high. It is a who’s who of male Brits, especially from the character actors set, which is rarely seen outside of a Harry Potter movie. (Amusingly, there are no fewer than five Potter vets in this movie: Oldman, Ciaran Hinds, and John Hurt play people, while Simon McBurney and Toby Jones voice house elves.) Some of them, like Hinds and Hurt, feel like luxuries. (I like Hurt as a cantankerous old man who is so secretive that not even this shrewdness of spies knows his real name: all of them, even Smiley, refer to him as “Control.” Hinds has a bizarre habit of being in movies I love, like this one and There Will Be Blood and Silence, for about five minutes of total screen time and then disappearing for the rest of the feature. It’s a shame.) Others, like McBurney and especially Tom Hardy, are essential. McBurney plays one of the movie’s rare government officials outside the Circus, the undersecretary with enough authority to bring Smiley out of retirement so he can unearth the mole in intelligence. He’s a perfect fit for the sorta slimy, definitely crafty politico he’s playing.

Hardy, who is either going to be one of the five or six best actors in the world in ten years or absolutely anonymous, is marvelous in a limited role. I strongly prefer slim Hardy to steroids Hardy, and Ricki Tarr is maybe the only endothermic man in the entire movie. He’s capable of falling in love with a Russian woman (Svetlana Khodchenkova) in Istanbul who has information. No one else in the Circus is capable of dropping out of sight to pursue a love affair, but Tarr, in his yellowish jacket and pale blue jeans, can. His ability to fall in love is also his ability to fall into a deep depression when she is brutally killed in front of him. Whether or not Smiley can really identify with falling in love is another question altogether. His wife, who is barely seen, takes on great significance in the movie as Smiley’s one real weakness. She cheats on him with another high-ranking Circus runaway, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). His wife is on his mind during his conversation with the man who would become Karla; both Smiley and Karla know from the conversation in which Smiley talks about Karla’s wife that Smiley is preoccupied with his own. Yet there is a stronger chance, to my mind, that his wife’s infidelity troubles him because of the disloyalty factor far more than any passion he might feel for her.

The most unexpected performance in the movie is Mark Strong as a spy with several identities and the ability to go to work in Hungary, Jim Prideaux. He spends most of the movie pretending to be dead by way of being a schoolteacher named Ellis, living in a caravan in front of the building. The boys at school are unimpressed with him for a minute until a bird flies down the chimney and into his classroom. It glides around and back in front of Prideaux: he kills it in midair with a log. (If only every teacher were given such an opportunity…there would be no class in American liable to say a syllable out of turn.) If Tarr can feel pain, then Prideaux can feel loss. The fact that he was obviously betrayed in Hungary, when he was shot down, captured, and turned loose, casts a great pall over his new life as a teacher in some remote English hamlet. He is gruff at the best of times, occasionally avuncular with the class outcast, but ultimately cruel to him. He pushes the boy away forcefully enough towards the end of the movie that the portly bespectacled kid is unlikely to ever really forgive him, even if Prideaux were to try to make amends. There’s simply more in Strong here than what one usually sees. He looks, in other words, like a potential leading man and not merely a villain or a imposing supporting character. The character is interesting enough on his own, but Strong gives Prideaux wounds that don’t have to be on the surface to be obvious. If it weren’t for Oldman, this would absolutely be Strong’s picture.

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