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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, December 24, 2011

 
Saturday Night at the Movies


The mole from the ministry


By Dennis Hartley


















Smiley’s sense of snow: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy



It is always the quiet ones that you need to be wary of. I’m sure you’ve watched enough nature documentaries on the National Geographic Channel to figure that one out. Lions will sit patiently for hours, waiting for the right moment to pounce. As casual and disinterested as they may seem at times, they never lose their focus. They are studying your every move, all the while visualizing how nicely you will fit on today’s fresh sheet.


Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s new film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (adapted from John le Carre’s classic espionage potboiler by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan) is chockablock with such animals. However, these are not creatures of the four-legged, furry variety that you will find in the sun-drenched African Savanna, lurking about in tall grasses. These are creatures of the bipedal, D-deficient variety that you will find in the fog-shrouded British Isles, usually lurking in musty offices with nicotine-stained ceilings.


The story is set in 1973, against a Cold War backdrop. Our unlikely hero is not so much a leonine, but rather an owlish sort of fellow. His name is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), and despite the fact that he would look more at home behind a library check out desk than behind the wheel of, let’s say, an Aston Martin, he is a seasoned intelligence agent for MI6. Actually, Smiley’s long-standing career with a branch known as “The Circus” is not going so well. When his boss, known simply as Control (John Hurt), gets booted out for a botched operation in Hungary, Smiley finds himself out of a job as well (more as a scapegoat). It seems that the office politics of the Circus are nearly indistinguishable from the acrimonious and paranoia-fueled spy games played in the field with “enemy” agents.


Smiley’s forced retirement doesn’t last too long (it can’t…we wouldn’t have a film!). He is summoned to a meet with a government under-secretary (Simon McBurney), where he is sasked to come back to work (in secret). There are suspicions that there is a double agent amongst the higher echelons of the Circus, who has been feeding sensitive intelligence to the Soviets for a number of years. Smiley’s mission, should he decide to accept it, is to smoke out the mole. Interestingly, it was Smiley’s former boss, Control (now dead), who originally sniffed out this possibility, narrowing the field of suspects down to five men in the department (including Smiley, now in the clear). Given that he didn’t seem to have too much going on outside of his job (apart from brooding about his estranged wife), Smiley jumps at this chance to get back in the game. And of course, as the movies have taught us, the Crusty yet Benign (city editor, senior lawyer, police inspector, seasoned beat cop, or in this case, Master Spy) needs an Ambitious Young Apprentice to be his eyes and ears (Benedict Cumberbatch as the up-and-coming agent).


What ensues plot-wise is much too byzantine and multi-layered for me to synopsize here. Besides, it’s always much more gratifying to solve a Rubik’s Cube yourself than to have someone hand you an EZ step-by-step cheat sheet, no? And when I say “byzantine and multi-layered”, I mean that in the best way possible, thanks in no small part to that rarest of animals found at the multiplex these days: The Intelligent Script (#1 on the endangered species list). Not only do Alfredson, his writers and actors refuse to insult our intelligence, but they aren’t afraid to make us do something that we haven’t done in a while: lean forward in our theatre seat to catch every nuance of plot and character (it’s been so long that I think I pulled something). Not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but more often than not I find myself pressed back in my seat, cowering in a semi-state of shellshock from the aural overkill and ADD editing in most Hollywood fare (so at what point did going to the movies morph from an act of enjoyment into a feat of endurance?).


That is not to say that this is a static and somber affair. There’s a bit of “action” here and there (people do occasionally get hurt in the spy biz), but it’s not calculated and choreographed for maximum impact; Dr. No’s island doesn’t blow up at the end. When violence does occur, it’s ugly, ungraceful and anything but cinematic (as it is in real life). Most of the “thrills” are drawn from the arsenal of the skilled actor; a sideways glance here or a subtle voice inflection there can ratchet up the tension as effectively as someone holding a gun to your head. And there are many skilled actors on board. This is Oldman’s best performance in years. It’s nice to see him take a break from playing cartoon villains and getting back to where he once belonged (his bespectacled, enigmatic characterization harkens back to another Cold War film spy hero for those of us of “a certain age”, Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer). Rounding off a top-notch cast are Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong (a standout) and the wonderful Kathy Burke (who, with a world-weary sigh, nails 2011’s best movie line concerning middle-aged malaise: “I don’t know about you George, but I’m feeling seriously under-fucked.”).


DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also photographed the director’s moody 2008 vampire tale, Let the Right One In ) deserves a mention. He sustains a bleak, wintry atmosphere that could be pulling double duty as a visual metaphor for the Cold War itself; or for the arctic desolation of the pasty-faced souls who populate this tale. Not unlike vampires, they are twilight creatures who prefer to stalk their prey under cover of darkness, and live in mortal fear of illumination and discovery. As I said…always be wary of the quiet ones.



Baby, it’s cold outside: Funeral in Berlin , The Ipcress File , Billion Dollar Brain,Spy Who Came in from the Cold , The Tailor of Panama, The Little Drummer Girl, The Constant Gardener, The Looking Glass War, The Defector, Jigsaw Man , Torn Curtain, The Tamarind Seed , The Deadly Affair, North by Northwest ,From Russia with Love, The Russia House, The Iron Curtain , Human Factor, The Kremlin Letter, Topaz, The Fourth Protocol , Defense of the Realm, Gorky Park,The Falcon and the Snowman , Pickup on South Street, Our Man in Havana, Hopscotch , No Way Out, Spy Game



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