Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy received some great news at the BAFTAs. The film earned eleven nominations, one shy of the benchmark set by The Artist. The more I think about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the more I fall in love with it.
Think of the kind of thriller that tends to play well to a big audience. It’s loud, heated, and very open in its presentation. There are secrets, but they’re secondary to the here and now on the screen.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just as thrilling as those louder films. It just happens to be quiet, slow, methodical, and driven by subtext, subterfuge, and secrets. It’s never about what is being said. The point is what is not said: the body language, the memories of a Christmas party, the placement of a handshake or the people slowly being removed from the office.Set at the height of Cold War paranoia in England, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is two-plus hours of film dedicated to finding one informant at the highest level of British security. After the failure of an intelligence mission in Turkey (the spy is shot because his cover is blown long before he steps foot in the country), Smiley (Gary Oldman) is told by Control (John Hurt) that someone in the office is a Soviet informant. He quietly narrows down the suspects without even letting the audience know who is no longer suspicious before separating and revealing the truth in a very fulfilling climactic scene.
Climactic is perhaps an overstatement. There are four moments in the film that show anything more intense than grass blowing in the wind: the initial Turkey scene, an interrogation scene, Smiley’s recreation of an interrogation scene, and the final part of the investigation. Even then, those scenes only get as loud as a fist on a table or a single gunshot.
The genius of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is this quiet and even presentation. Gary Oldman carries the entire film by playing a character who only once gets anymore expressive than barely moving his lips into a smile. He remains steadfast and in control everywhere except for that scene. I think it’s incredibly shortsighted to praise him just for that slightly louder scene but it’s what puts his performance into focus.
Smiley is meeting with an informant that the British intelligence department has abandoned. He describes in great detail how he learned to become this stoic figure. It boils down to going head to head with a top Soviet spy about to be turned over by British authority to the USSR and losing. Speaking about the interrogation brings him right back into the moment some twenty years before. You see his perfect veneer begin to crack as he can’t bring himself to admit defeat or vary his well-trained routine. Let’s just say that after that scene, I would gladly pay to watch two hours of Gary Oldman delivering monologues about the life of Smiley and queue up to watch it again immediately afterwards.
The use of music in the film is very smart. Smiley keeps trying to remember exactly what happened at the most recent holiday party for the people in his office. He plays back who talked with who, who shook whose hand, and–ultimately–who went missing with his wife in the bushes behind the office. Instead of hearing a scrap of dialogue, you hear party music. The best is saved for last when the party is shown in full swing to a disco-hued French cover of “Beyond the Sea.”
A less skilled production team would have chosen a more cliched way to create a rhythm to the party. You would hear a cavalcade of voices and little snippets of identifiable and relevant conversation. Maybe it would all be silent except for the clinking of glasses or slow-motion and super-loud close-ups of forks hitting plates and shoes hitting the dance floor. It certainly wouldn’t be a silent scene synced up to a pop record.
The same goes for Alberto Iglesias’ original scoring. Frankly, it’s only a little more complicated than elevator music. It’s intentionally bland and nondescript. Instead of a thumping bass and shrieking violins to build intensity, Iglesias provides a calm and soothing midtempo score that feels as cool and calculated as Smiley’s almost smile.
The film is just a bit too slow and quiet to call a must-see for everyone, but anyone with the patience and focus to sit through two-plus hours of very subtle spy maneuvers should see it.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.