Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Bit late to the party, I know, but I didn't get a chance to watch it in the theatres when it came out and then I forgot about it until I saw the title pop up on Apple TV.

I read John Le Carre's novel when I was in my late teens, and it was revelatory - neat, surgical writing, paper-dry wit, emerging tendrils of a genuine grief at its buried core. (Of course it led to my bad decision-making right after graduation. A very brief, false start that in hindsight, spoiled me for any future employment alongside other grown-ups.) Le Carre wrote it after his cover was blown by Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five, and his intelligence career subsequently ended. I think the sorrow and anger at his sudden loss turned out to be key ingredients in the novel.

I previously watched director Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (2008) and thought it was good, but didn't really care for the story. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic text that has been filmed before, but I've never watched either the BBC series or the Alec Guinness film. I don't think I need to. Tomas Alfredson's effort was beautiful - stylish without being bleak for the sake of it, grey and brooding without tipping over into self-parody. Lots of movies these days - especially pulpy superhero ones, which I suppose need it most - seem to 'go dark' as a cheap way to up the stakes visually and emotionally. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has the darkness pre-built into the script, and the film's events unfold at their own pace. Brutality is delivered plainly, without needing to be heralded or celebrated as if it was a highlight. (I did squeal and cover my eyes at the more gruesome set pieces, though.)

It's been noted that the camera in the film takes the role of voyeur, watching the actors in motion from a distance. My favourite sequence was the scene where Polyakov's wife Irina discovers his infidelity. The viewer takes Ricki Tarr's (Tom Hardy) position in his own hotel room, where he is spying through a telescope on the Russian delegation's hotel across the street. In the lit stretch of full-length windows we see 1) Irina open the front door on the left, and the other members of the delegation weakly attempting to dissuade her from entering the bedroom. Striding down the length of the sitting room, she brushes them off and 2) opens the bedroom door to see Polyakov fucking a brunette in bed, who escapes as poor Irina goes berserk and 3) promptly has her head slammed several times against the window by her not-so-loving husband, whereupon 4) she stumbles into the bathroom on the furthest right to weep, and eventually raises her bloodstained face to confront the viewer's spying eye (i.e. Ricki's, in the film).

Irina's eventual sad ending is particularly awful, given that in her brief appearance she shows a commendable intelligence and self-preserving distrust lacking in the other characters, who are blinded by ego or loyalty. Besides her small part and a token appearance by Sovietologist Connie Sachs, there aren't many women in the film, but then it was a man's world in the 1960s. Actually, a third woman haunts the film - George Smiley's wife Ann, whose face is never seen, but whose absence and betrayal have settled into the very centre of his being. Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a man who has not come to terms with the loss of his wife, but instead has become defined by it.

On a more shallow note, I am absolutely in love with the aesthetics of the film - the smoke rising from cigarettes and pipes, tweed and corduroy and leather, dusty bookshelves and desks piled high with paper in all its forms: books and notes and files and boxes. Every table seems to hold a crystal decanter of something amber and strong, and a cut-glass ashtray smeared with ash. Their world is muted in blue and grey tones, everything worn down by age and use, a little shabby, like Smiley in his exile from the Circus. I wouldn't want to live in that cinematic world - too cold, hate wearing sweaters - but it's beautiful, nonetheless.

I won't bore further with my discount cinema studies undergrad analysis of the film. I'll have to hunt down the rest of Le Carre's trilogy and read them, although I'm aware neither will likely match up to the severe beauty of that first book, an elegy for years of service, torn away by a bitter wind.