Wednesday, January 04, 2012
Cast: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Simon McBurney, Kathy Burke
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Runtime: 126 min.
Verdict: Could be a masterpiece. In Mr. Oldman’s turn we have the Daniel-Day Lewis performance of the year. And Mr. Cumberbatch is next in line to take over Hollywood.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
In many ways Karla is the target. With frames refusing to reveal a face, yet drenched in his shadowy presence, his name echoes from every corner of the film. The espionage fiction thrives on the presence of such a figure, usually the Soviets, condensing the enemy under his name, and a bunch of our good guys trying to work together in negotiating the threat. I am reminded of Robert Littell’s The Company, and Sasha, or the Jackal, or for that matter even Keyser Soze. Zodiac did have similar undertones, and I wonder if it is a part of our nature just so to make sense of things, or a way of thinking handed over to us as part of our culture. It could be one of those egg-chicken questions, but then history asks us to remember World War II as the Allies versus Adolf Hitler (Nazis). Or, the world against Bin Laden (Terrorism). Oh, we need a leader, sure, but a Patton needs an Eisenhower and a Montgomery, both to work with and be a rival of. There is probably a sub-textual political dichotomy here that reflects in the way our fiction structures itself. We’re many voices, many opinions, many minds and many plans against one; the “we” probably meant to be reassuring.
In the wake of disaster down at Budapest, we’re let inside the Circus’ (British Intelligence, MI6) conference room, and Control (Mr. Hurt) is surrounded by five men, all clearly defined save one. There’s Toby Esterhase (Mr. Dencik), there’s Bill Haydon (Mr. Firth), there’s Percy Alleline (Mr. Jones) and there’s Roy Bland (Mr. Hinds). The fifth is pushed to a corner in the space defined by these figures, obscured. Control has been asked to resign, and he “brings” this fifth man in by announcing – “Smiley is leaving with me.” Smiley (Mr. Oldman) is shocked, but he’s not the one to wear his emotions up his sleeves. It is a sequence of astounding economy and precision, establishing not merely the equation between Control and the other four, or the office-category George Smiley fits into (the type apparently disconnected sitting silent in a meeting and speaking only when asked to), but also the equation between Control and Smiley. The two old men awkwardly walk along the length of the floors, on their way out, and several eyes track them, all astonished. They walk out of the gate, and the two share a silent little moment, Smiley searching into Control’s apologetic eyes. Control walks away, and Smiley is left all alone within the frame. It is a heartbreaking little moment in an opening credit montage that is probably the most evocative to come all year. Smiley sleeps alone, swims alone, walks alone, and in long shallow-focused shots Smiley cuts a lonely and tragic little figure. I know how retirement feels like, and I can only imagine the emptiness of a forced retirement. It is an emptiness that would be crucial to the film’s centerpiece.
Mr. Alfredson contrasts these images of the lonely figure with that of the other four, jointly taking control of the Circus. Percy is the new Chief, but the four always seem to be together, often on one side of a table. The decisions they take are joint. Percy and Bland meet Lacon (Mr. McBurney) to discuss granting of funds for Operation Witchcraft, and the emphasis is always on “we”. There’s the film’s central memory, a moment of nostalgia the film keeps gravitating towards, of a Christmas Party where all the members of the Circus and their families have come about and are enjoying a jolly good time, and lit in bright colors it becomes a synecdochical moment of the Circus as a unit. The room is filled with people. Those were the good times, Connie Sachs (Ms. Burke) remarks. It is this unity, between the members of the Circus, or between the trans-Atlantic cousins, that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy intends to completely shatter, trying to reveal the inefficacy and innate impotence of such an enterprise. In times as these, where the special relationship was the subject of chuckles and embarrassments and terms such as poodleism, where the “respect in bed” in this relationship is vital, where Hollywood’s most popular choice for best actress plays the Iron Lady, and where a graffiti on a wall reads “The future is female”, Mr. Alfredson’s film seems to contain an undercurrent of a nation’s doubts in a world where it no longer is the dominant power but only one of the allies. The wish is to feel good.
George Smiley recounts his conversation with Karla in Delhi eighteen years ago in ‘55, the only time he or anybody in the film (except for the mole probably) ever encountered him in person. Karla, then a little pawn, was caught by the Americans. Moscow center was in pieces, and he was on his way back to Russia, probably as part of some diplomatic exchange, and an imminent execution. Smiley was to convince him to come over, and he remembers giving him a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, a gift from his wife Anne. We would later see how that turns out. Peter Guillam (Mr. Cumberbatch) is the one listening, but 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. It is one of those mirror/doppelganger/you-complete-me across-the-table scenarios, like the one that Michael Mann did with Heat, or Christopher Nolan did with The Dark Knight, two sequences that now feel quite incomplete in the way Mr. Alfredson and Mr. Oldman thematically redefine it. The latter two represent a fantasy of a conversation, a sort of wish-fulfillment, 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. The suspects are all black chess pieces, but Smiley has the respect to give Karla a white one. Here’s a man alone asked to forcibly retire, and a wife who has left him. One wonders, at this moment, if this memory of the conversation is his motivation, his personal fantasy.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy goes about realizing this fantasy in breathtaking fashion. The film is as much about the disintegration of the unity of an organization as it is about the Nietzschian rebirth of a defeated figure cast into oblivion. The spaces within the film’s characters in the present starkly contrast with the Christmas party, and even Smiley, encourages this distance by sitting in corners interviewing Circus members (Sachs and Tarr and Prideaux), all reduced to subjects. He devours their pasts, asking questions and motivations and here both him the film spectacularly box each individual within their own worlds. The pasts float around unhinged, each of its subjects locked within the cells of their own perspectives. Jim Emerson describes here one particular moment, a framing of the Budapest parliament, and it is quite astounding how the film, by way of a simple backwards dolly not merely segregates and compartmentalizes the setting into an event, but establishes the film’s primary method – to look at the past, and from a distance. In a film as Zodiac, or even here, where the big four sit on one side of the table and question Peter, the methods of Smiley differ drastically. He sits on the chair, leaning back, and his handpicked men (one step towards realizing the fantasy) sit in the background. He keeps his cards close to his chest. Mr. Vishnevetsky notes a Melvilliean influence in Smiley’s laconic demeanor, and compares Mr. Alfredson a little unfavorably to my man, observing that the former is given to the mechanics of the plot. This, if I were to borrow a term from the film, is chickenfeed. Because hey, you know who else was laconic? Harry Callahan, who, by way of popular appraisal, is a fascist, and that is a fantasy at the heart of it all.
There is the film’s central memory, a Christmas party, and it is broken down into the various conflicts. I had been watching the magnificent Nostalgia for the Light, with its fragments of past assuming a cosmic weight. There’s a similar tussles within these moments, a sense of fact almost displacing a sense of drama. There’s a remarkable set of edits (some of them so good I almost want to snatch my vote away from The Tree of Life) that furthers this tussle, and confirms Smiley’s transformation. He asks his right-hand man Peter to tidy up his stuff (in reference to his homosexual relationship), and as his boyfriend leaves the apartment, a heartbroken Peter, shot from outside a window, sits in the middle of the frame, sobs inconsolably. And at that very moment the film cuts to Smiley, who is in the very same position of the frame as Peter, smiling. He remembers his own heartbreak from the past and he nods it away with a smile. The thing is to look at the past straight, dissect it for its facts. It is heartbreaking the way the Circus falls apart, and retreats from its past. It is a moment the film celebrates, and it is the year’s strangest and awesomest moment, where George Smiley walks into the Circus’ big room and sits at the top of the table. In the background is the chessboard of wallpaper, and these intelligence guys know it is all about moves. Smiley, for the first time, leans not backwards but forwards, on the table, like a true grandmaster, allowing himself a smile. It is as if James Jesus Angleton met J. Edgar Hoover. The fantasy is complete. The music is Julio Iglesias’ La Mer. So yeah, in a way, Karla is the aim. He is, it seems, what drives him. The film applauds its man. It was both disconcerting and comforting. I applauded too.
Note: Regarding the film’s economy, and the bee in the car sequence, it is as much of an exposition as any sequence in, say, Inception. Just because no one says a word doesn’t equate to economy. The scene exists only to establish that fact, and a similar one with an owl does the same. But you have to ask yourself one thing - did the guy who was patient enough to let the bee out know it would be swatted by somebody?