Sunday, February 12, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Old Ginger

What a blast. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who did the acclaimed horror film Let the Right One In, followed up that effort with yet another adaptation of a novel, this time written by the famed John le Carre, who himself was a real life British intelligence operative who left the service to become a full time writer. His name may not ring a bell at first, but he's responsible for countless of stories that involve spy vs spy, and in the last decade had his stories The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener, amongst others, made into movies. His main protagonist of George Smiley is to him like how probably Jack Ryan is to Tom Clancy, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first in what would be known as the Karla Trilogy, and I'm hoping the rest could be made as well, if this is indicative of how the rest can be.

I have to admit that the film moves at meditative pace, quite unlike most spy films which tend to focus on either the intrigue behind the politicking, or the action sequences. This is like an anti-thesis to the Bond films, where the figures that lurk in the shadows, stay in the shadows, rather than to blow their cover at each possible opportune. The narrative moves forward and backward very freely, and it's up to your own devices to piece things together in chronological order. But Alfredson does this without alienating or frustrating the viewer, and in fact putting scenes in their place so that they make sense, and provide you with a little bit of fun and work to figure out the complex web of relations and accounts that already exists, putting you in the driver's seat just as George Smiley (Gary Oldman) gets tasked to try and figure out the identity of a mole in the top levels of the British intelligence service.

Assembling a small crack team that he could trust, the crux of the story is like an investigative drama, where suspects and witnesses get paid an imposing visit by the unsmiling (contrary to his last namesake) Smiley whom you know brings about a certain gravitas in his presence, compelling one to cooperate rather than to go against. Gary Oldman, when his character George Smiley is on to you, there's no escape and even without firing a shot his deep stare and monotonous voice hardly betrays any emotion, and will make anyone piss in their pants out of unfounded fear. In many instances one will find it perplexing why he goes about in his investigations in a certain peculiar way, and only when it's revealed much later on that it all made sense, tying in with the way the scenes got presented together, sometimes without very clear answers, relying on your ability to put 1 and 1 together.

To say anything more will be to betray the necessity of the viewer to pay really close attention to every word said, and every scene being played out. There are plenty of thick dialogue in the film that calls for your utmost attention, with failure being to miss out on pertinent clues in this cat and mouse hunt, played out when one has to operate from the outside to probe into an office one held before, to look for clues and evidence without alerting the proverbial snake until the time is right. And playing probable snakes are a myriad of characters, with some of the best ensemble casting that any film will find envious of, such as Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Oldman himself, amongst others.

With the spate of public officials being caught with their pants down in various scandals here in Singapore, this film couldn't be more apt when one thinks about the kind of probes that get sanctioned in order to weed out the rot right at the top, such as the appointment of a commission of inquiry to go in with authority, and with a grave mission at hand to seek accountability. In essence that's what Smiley had to deal with, being tasked out of retirement to do just that and get down to the bottom of things, with what I thought was actually a brilliant masterstroke by the mole to do things in a certain personal way that will cast doubts into the mind of its possible, powerful adversary, thinking multiple steps ahead in deliberately measured chess game. And the fact is that the story is also quite close to real life, being le Carre's novelized account of his own experiences of the 50s and 60s scandal that revealed the Cambridge Five traitors within Britain.

In most real life spy versus spy cases, there's always a distinct lack of pomp or to keep things under wraps for fear of having one's cover blown apart, or jeopardizing the prospects of other agents. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also subscribes to this mantra that shuns big movement and action, but in its place comes the real treasure of the intricate work done to uncover leaks and spies with tools of utmost secrecy, and diplomacy to a certain extent where deals get cut and made. It's old school spy 101, but has more than enough fuel in its tank to warrant repeat viewings just to catch all the subtleness and complexities. Highly recommended as the thinking man's spy thriller!

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