Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Tinker, Tailor, and how to spot a murderer

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Any review I write of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will inevitably be brought up against the fact that I don’t know much about John le Carré. For various reasons, I’ve never been able to get into his work, despite trying and failing several times. This may seem like a strange admission from someone who, rather to his own surprise, has found himself making a living as a suspense novelist, but my own interests are considerably removed from le Carré’s: I’m not necessarily fascinated by spycraft or the Cold War for its own sake, so whenever I open one of his meticulously crafted novels, I feel a greater cultural shock upon entering this world than I do with, say, Fredrick Forsyth, who is probably the lesser artist, but who has a greater journalistic interest in keeping the lay reader engaged. All the same, I do intend to take the plunge into le Carré one of these days—there’s just no avoiding him if you have any interest at all in the history of the thriller—but it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps fortunately, then, I was able to approach the chilly new adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with something close to an open mind. (I also haven’t seen the famous television adaptation with Alec Guinness as George Smiley.) And while I’m obviously unable to judge its faithfulness to the source material, it certainly captures my idea of le Carré: tense, reserved, hermetic. As other reviewers have noted, it plunges you at once into a world of names, tradecraft, and technical language, to an extent that, refreshingly, gives the audience almost too much credit. It’s a testament to the quality of the cast, especially Gary Oldman’s restrained but powerful turn as Smiley, and director Tomas Alfredson, who creates a nice, faintly rotting atmosphere, that we’re interested and engaged the entire time, assuming that we can make the leap into the world that the movie has created. The film certainly doesn’t go out of its way to pull us in: it’s a mole hunt, revolving around the search for a traitor at the highest levels of British intelligence, but the stakes are less about the loss of real secrets than a sense of clubby betrayal, which we can only regard from a distance.

This refusal to hold the audience’s hand can be intriguing, but there are also times when it works against the story that the movie is trying to tell. For example, while I love its avoidance of the chronological chryons (“Four years earlier,” “Present day”) that clutter up so many of our suspense films, there’s also a crucial moment when we’re confused about whether or not a certain scene is a flashback, which diffuses the impact of an important surprise. More damagingly, for the mole hunt to have any weight at all, we need to know something about the men under suspicion, but for the most part, we know them only at sight, with their relationships expressed by a veiled exchange of glances, or not at all. As someone who has come down more than once against backstory, I applaud the decision to leave much of this material to implication, but I can’t help feeling that the movie takes it slightly too far, with at least one major character so thinly developed that it’s impossible, and rightly so, to take him as a suspect.

This reluctance to spell things out can be addressed, to a point, by thoughtful casting, and indeed, the actors—Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, and a very winning Benedict Cumberbatch—tell us far more about their characters than is conveyed by the script itself. In at least one respect, however, the casting is a bit too clever, leading to the movie’s one real flaw, also shared by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Spoilers for both movies follow, at least by implication.) I’ve long since learned that the easiest way to spot a murderer, or a mole, is to look for a famous actor cast in what seems, at first, to be an insignificant supporting part, or at least a part with nothing obvious to attract a well-known name. Because actors of a certain caliber generally won’t take such small roles, at least not without good reason, the observant viewer suspects that there’s more to this character than meets the eye. It’s always possible, of course, that a really clever movie will employ a famous face as a deliberate distraction…but in the end, the casting in both Tinker, Tailor and Dragon Tattoo gives away the game. I doubt that Smiley would approve.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2012 at 10:17 am

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