Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Review:Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyIn 2010 I made a not-so-serious oath in front of my friends to kill a couple of filmmakers the first chance I get. They were Silvio Soldini and Tomas Alfredson. ( Soldini is a separate issue which I will talk about some other day, if I bother to that is.unlikely.) The reason I wished the death of Mr. Alfredson was not very well formulated; it was just that the extent of thematic, ideological and aesthetic messiness that his last film Let the Right One in was, and the possibilities that the film seemed to hint at yet never quite well utilised (I had recently watched Werckmeister Harmonies back then, if anyone wants a hint as to how good Alfredson’s film could have been) made me feel a certain contempt towards the presumably well established life of Mr. Alfredson.  He returns with the restrained espionage drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, adapted from John le Carre’s novel of the same name. On a very basic level, the film functions well with its restrained atmosphere complementing the equally temperate series of interrogations. The fact that the novel redefined the way spy novels functioned certainly comes across in this seemingly faithful adaptation of the novel, especially in its tone and pace. But then the film gets over-ridden with the Alfredson bug. The oddball mix of absurd, seemingly Lynchian shots combine with some flaccid aesthetic choices to make a seemingly powerful film into one giant mess. Notable however, are also a few moments of brilliance within the film, which I attribute to the screenplay and/or pure chance after seeing how lame Alfredson can get. For my own ease, I have divided this review into two parts concerned with what is RIGHT and what is WRONG in the film in order to see in depth into the messiness and mixed reactions that the film otherwise generates.Oh, and there will be spoilers. If that matters.


In its attempt to reconstruct the tone and restrained configuration of the novel, the film sure gives us a "realist" spy film; devoid of physicality and predominantly psychological. The ill-focused, non-participating backgrounds sure induce a restrained sense of paranoia which does well to entice one into the atmosphere.

(Un)luckily for the film, my viewing of it was followed by a viewing of Rivette's masterful Out 1: Noli me tangere which is perhaps the paragon of implicit cinematic paranoia and in comparison, the mood of Tinker Tailor faded into a concealed sense of empathetic gesture from me. "Yeah, well. You tried your best. I get it and respect you for that."Equally plausible would be the converse; that the mood of this film is actually frizzled out and doesn't hold out very well in comparison to other genuinely powerful films. But then I am talking about the pros of the film, so yeah. Get my drift.

The film also succeeds in doing what its primary obsession is; to deconstruct the myth of England as one of the major world forces past its World War glory. What we see instead, is its most competent men, who handle its intelligence in this Cold War paranoia, veering towards a dreary non existence, often suspecting and blaming each other on the way. The whole east-west dichotomy gets absolved in the process and what is left is not an idealized nation but a muddled utopian projection that can only be chuckled at. "And the west has become so very ugly" expresses a character. We have no option but to agree. There is a shot where the usually inert background comes to life with the quote 'Woman is the Future'. A perverse dig at the aging old men who try to come to terms with their nation's inadequacy and a bitter prophecy about the sweeping politics of Thatcherism that will invade England in a few years, this statement rounds up the contrast between the idealized project that these men had aspired their nation to be and what it has actually become; it is clearly not the best of places, nor the best of times.

There's also how the film employs sweeping camera movements and powerful zoom-outs to reconstruct a puzzle out of different people's memories. And since a major motif of the film is to look at the past to identify a hidden element therein, this technique works well, seemingly glorious at times. Like this opening zoom-out of the Hungarian landscape-

 Some stuff about this aspect and some other not-so-agreeable points regarding the film by the brilliant Ignatiy Vishnevetsky can be found here.

As I said earlier, the film's concern is predominantly psychological and nothing illustrates this better than the showpiece monologue of the film where Smiley talks about his meeting with Karla and how that one meeting has scarred him since then and how his wish to undo that meeting is what truly drives him now. As Satish Naidu points out, 
as is the case with many monologues I wonder if the audience is the speaker himself. It is the elaborate expressionistic centerpiece of the film’s motivations and Smiley loses himself in it, miming the past, which is strange (against the pattern) in a film that is essentially drawn towards it. In front of him is a chair, with empty space over it, and Smiley fills it with himself... and here’s Smiley talking in a vacuum about a shadow who was to meet certain death and yet seems to have the power now all to himself. It is one incredible choice from Mr. Alfredson, to cut to an intense close-up of Smiley as he stares into the frame, which quite unmistakably becomes a mirror of sorts. More than anybody in The Circus, it is Smiley who is haunted by Karla, by his seemingly endless almost fictional potency.
This brilliantly realized close-up of Smiley in which the camera irrevocably achieves the status of a mirror effectively reflects the emotions of Smiley, savoring each emotion off his face and layers about his psyche with it. This shot also establishes why Gary Oldman is one of the best actors working today. Bar none.

This mirror shot is complemented in the ending where the slight smirk on Smiley's face as he leans forward indicates that he is now ready to undo that incident he had been hiding from for so long. It's a face-to-face with Karla now, and nothing can stop him.


Now that the obligatory good stuff has been discussed, I would start off with my real issues with the film. A major problem I have with the film might as well hark back to the ideological core of the novel itself; with a possibility that this problem got pacified within the over 400 paged novel but becomes really apparent within the duration of the film-as a text concerned primarily with the psychological apparatus of the characters and revolving around their morally ambiguous choices, it seems strangely black and white. There are constantly formed polarities, dichotomies which are quickly and effectively resolved, never letting a gray zone to exist. Characters' motives and actions are firmly guided by the central alignment of the narrative: nothing goes askew. To put it in a Marxist idiom, the base seems to be predominated within the textual framework by the superstructure, which seems out of place. Smiley loves his wife unconditionally and that is all that drives him: her gift, the lighter now in possession of Karla and therefore Karla himself is his prescient link with her gesture of love towards him and everything he does is an attempt to recover that material token of love. Seems legit, but for the implicit cold war paranoia and desperate post WW2 glorification that the national intelligence seems to  be clouded with, and which very much becomes apparent within the film in a sub-textual manner but its seeming affect is close to zero on Smiley. Or on any other character for that matter. Consider how morally polarized the characters whose narration advances the plot are when Smiley interrogates them. Tarr has no one else to go to. So he would reveal everything to Smiley without holding anything back. Haydon or Prideaux have nothing to lose, so they would speak their hearts out to Smiley in order to make it convenient for the reader/audience. In a state that is seeping with paranoia and everyone suspects everyone else, human relations strive on mis-communications as much as they do on communicability. That just does not happen here. What we have instead are characters, who, once their moral ambiguity has hit the fan, become as uni-dimensional as they can be.

The same is true as far as the characters' sacrifices go: all are based on human relations. Except for, of course Esterhase, who is reduced to a dummy and the mole, who gives his own set of reasons for the betrayal. Everyone has to sacrifice their lovers or as is the case with Smiley, come to terms with the sacrifice. And the bland homo-eroticism that developed between the student "Bill" and Prideaux in order to draw parallels with the relation Prideaux' previously had with the other Bill was simply pathetic. 

Moving on to the aesthetic choices. In the beginning we have Lacon giving the responsibility of finding the mole to Smiley. We have a close-up of Smiley's face followed by a sequence showing all the four suspects i.e. Smiley imagining one of the four to be the mole. In this one aesthetic move, Smiley is established as the innocent man who will from now on, genuinely attempt to flush out the mole. Which would've been fine in case there was no reveal later as to how Control suspected Smiley as well, to be a prospective mole. The statement that this aesthetic choice makes is clearly a disregard for the intelligence of Control which is re-affirmed in the end as proper and not merely some senility-infested paranoia.

There is a clear disregard for the audience's intelligence in the film and the shots are placed simply to give them a narrative arc. Consider this example:-
 Around the 35-minute mark, we are shown in a series of semi-Bressonian shots, a man supplying the secret files to Polyakov.
Before this sequence, we have the central Christmas party segment and after it, we see a medium long shot of Smiley sitting. Now as to why we had this sequence here, there is no clear aesthetic explanation. We could have argued that this was all Smiley imagining about a prospective mole but then these sequences also involve a woman and a dog about whom Smiley is not aware of until later on in the film. Therefore an otherwise beautiful possibility of this actually being Smiley's imagination can be ruled out. Therefore, the narrative is not a meta-extension of Smiley's or anyone else's psychology but the narrative instead comprises of fragments from a collective consciousness a la the Christmas party(and much other random stuff). In simpler words, narrative is the dominant motif here and all the sequences are there just to simplistically narrate the story to the audience. Why then do we have many critics and viewers alike, complaining about their inability to properly follow the plot? Why indeed?

You know, I can go on and on about the poor aesthetic choices but I frankly don't have the patience anymore. I have a feeling that this write-up is developing into a weird droll anyway. Honestly, in the obligatory second viewing that I undertook, the film degraded into a giant aesthetic mess and I didn't watch past the first hour in order to preserve some of the dignity that the film had accrued in my first viewing


1 comment:

  1. Except for Gary Oldman, I found nothing interesting in the film.