Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

07 January 2012

Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is great. Based on the famous novel by John le Carré, Tinker is a 1970s spy story that works methodically and skillfully to build suspense and deepen the development of characters. The film is directed by Tomas Alfredson, who directed the original disturbing Let the Right One In from 2008. Tinker has a similar mood to that picture, and moves – it seemed to me – at a similar pace.

I happen to rather love spy movies, but I have to admit that the Cold War as a topic strikes me as a rather tired topic (I was incredibly bored with it, for instance, in Clint Eastwood's snooze-fest J. Edgar). But I found Tinker invigorating, suspenseful, and at times deeply affecting. I think that this is probably because Tinker is less interested in the idea of A) saving the world or B) protecting "very important secrets" from the Russians or C) stopping the development of some new weapon. The past is the past. The world wasn't destroyed in the 1970s, and the only people living under capitalism these days who are terrified by Josef Stalin or Russians or even the principles of communism are easily dismissed as hysterics. Instead of a focus on these now-dated ideas (although James Bond seems still intent on fighting them), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy focuses on relationships, loyalty, betrayal, and the material effects of espionage on actual people.

I was particularly impressed by the film's treatment of violence, which is never romantic or softened. Tinker makes it clear that the secrets and betrayals in which it traffics result in blood and (literally) guts. There is no room for thinking that espionage is all just fun and games (or cloaks and daggers). And yet there's no battle of ideas here. There are no questions of who is "right" or who is "wrong." Tinker focuses in on the ways in which the spies all work together, the way they fool one another, and leave ruined lives in their wake. It's a fascinating film.

Gary Oldman is fantastic in the lead role – a legendary one once played by Sir Alec Guinness – and he is supported by an astounding array of actors including John Hurt (a favorite actor of mine), Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth. I love all of these actors, and it is such a pleasure to watch them all work together. Kathy Burke is also absolutely fantastic in the film, but my favorite performance is from relative newcomer (but suddenly exploding everywhere) Benedict Cumberbatch. (That's him to the left – but how can that seriously be someone's name?) Cumberbatch plays Oldman's man on the inside. It's a great role and a nerve-wracking one. I absolutely loved him. The scenes that involve only Cumberbatch and Oldman are particularly great. The writing is excellent, and the two actors execute the sequences just perfectly.

One more note on Oldman, quickly. I know that Oldman has not historically been the Motion Picture Academy's particular cup of tea. I am not sure I understand why this is, but I know it is true. The work that he Oldman does in this film, though, is as superb of a performance that I can think of in recent years. He performs this role with all of the ease of an actor who is a master at his craft. Nothing is over done. There is not one false note in the entire performance. Surprise and contempt and despair all register on Oldman's face in the merest flickers; the character is adept at giving nothing away, but Oldman manages to portray this desire to give nothing away while also letting the audience know exactly how deeply he feels what he feels. It is really great work.