'Tinker Tailor': Darkness Shines
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" begins in darkness. Some of that dark shapes itself into silhouette, knocks on a door. A wizened old fellow materializes in a wedge of wan light: "You weren't followed, were you? Will you come in?" And finally, "Trust no one."
Thus does director Tomas Alfredson formally signal the nature of the haunted house we're invited to enter. The elements of that unsettling prologue -- mysterious shade admitted from mausoleum dark by ancient gatekeeper -- suggest horror movie, especially Alfredson's breakout vampire film "Let the Right One In" (2008). We're primed for the perfectly crafted "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" to be a spook show in more ways than one. A meticulously visualized anatomy of melancholy, this challenging movie freezes you to the edge of your seat, adrenalized with terror and pity.
Alfredson seamlessly merges the genres of espionage and horror: John le Carré's dispassionate Cold War spycraft now plays out in a tomb-world, sucked dry of air and color, prowled by walking dead. "Let the Right One In" used vampirism as metaphor for essential, if perverse and fleeting, human connection; "Tinker Tailor" expands the metaphor to embrace the human condition as an awful state of suspended animation, in a climate that withers love or faith.
That paranoid geezer in the prologue is Control (a riveting John Hurt), head of MI-6's nest of undercover men. He's about to post a minion to Hungary on an off-the-books mission to suss out the possibility of a Russian mole at the highest level of the Circus (le Carré's sobriquet for Spy Central). When that mission goes fatally wrong, Control is forced into retirement by a coven of cold-blooded colleagues.
Without warning or explanation, Control deliberately takes his right-hand man out of the game with him. George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) reaction to the arbitrary termination of a decades-long career? The minutest adjustment of his sight line. Spymaster and "son" bid each other farewell, rigidly posed before a high ironwork fence, separated by an abyss of silence.
Some time later the resurrected Smiley, rummaging through his late boss's fusty digs, discovers chess pieces adorned with pictures of the Circus' ringmasters, each a possible Judas. The nursery rhyme-named suspects include Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man -- respectively, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), a malevolent little leprechaun; Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), seducer extraordinaire; saturnine Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds); and reptilian Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
Enlisting a Circus insider (the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, BBC's Sherlock Holmes), Smiley begins -- doggedly, sans James Bond derring-do -- to tug at the web of lies and betrayal he calls home. So tangled are the threads he follows, we despair of his ever finding path or pattern. Sometimes those threads lead us back in time -- most notably, to a foreshadowing Circus Christmas party -- but the lens of memory is as likely to blur as clarify truth and guilt.
Coolly pursuing intelligence, Alfredson's camera eye inches slowly toward window after window, to frame spooks looking out, as though thirsty for some clue that might complete and revivify the existential jigsaw puzzle in which they're trapped. "Let the Right One In" began with a lonely child perched at a window, spying on other, seemingly happier lives across the courtyard, each apartment a movie screen for a boy with hungry eyes. Similarly, Circus thug Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) surveils three windows across from his hotel, witnessing infidelity and a wife's bloody beating. Tarr's Peeping Tom, blinded by a damsel in distress, blows his cover to take a leap of faith. In these cold climes, love is always a fatal fall. Even Smiley can't "see straight" for doting on wife Ann, his "Achilles' heel."
There's no emotional exit in these Escher-like environs, no real "outside" or locus of everyday life, nothing beyond the Circus, despite mindless commitment to winning the Cold War for an abstraction called the West. Everyone's a permanent insider, encoffined in shabby offices and dim apartments, sky-blocking edifices, even a claustrophobic camper.
Alfredson's Circus becomes fascinating theater of futility (shades of Beckett). Living for/on meager transfusions from a vast, arterial system of intel, spy-folk -- mostly male, often closeted homosexuals -- lap up dribs and drabs of toxic "treasure" (i.e., information). Smiley, wonderfully misnamed, may be waiting for God or Revelations, but there's no payoff, no endgame.
No one in "Tinker Tailor"'s cast, a pantheon of British heavy-hitters, sets a foot wrong. Firth manages, masterfully, to thin his omnivorous charm and good looks, exposing terrifying emptiness beneath. Mark Strong especially surprises, leaving recent cartoon-villain roles behind to deliver a nuanced, heartbreaking performance as another spy who, ensorcelled by a smile, tries to come in from the cold.
But it's Oldman whom Oscar should reward. A clenched soul hunkered down behind a worn mask, scoured of affect, Oldman's Smiley turns his head like a gun turret, black-hole eyes absorbing data and pain. Emotion leaks out of that carapace just three times: when he spies his wife's infidelity; in exasperated contempt for a colleague's shallow treachery; and most terribly, during a long monologue in which he recounts, in devastating closeup, a long-ago meeting with Russian counterpart Karla, when the soul-killing pointlessness of life in the Circus hits home. The hollow man's mask decomposes, Nosferatu blasted by sunlight.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.