Growing up on a slew of Bond flicks, and reading the Bourne books at a relatively young age, my introduction to the world of the British spy trope was one of car chases, kinetic action and exotic locales. The tone presented in this film, clearly derived from the John le Carré's source, seems a world apart from these visceral spy novels. TINKER is a penetrating work, cerebral and deliberate. Its narrative is one of breadth and complexity, yet the plot is secondary to the astonishing way the film conveys perception, a movie more about the investigation than the result of the chase.
TINKER is a throwback film, to be sure, along similar lines to this year's DRIVE or IDES OF MARCH. The drab colour scheme, period haircuts and soviet-era plotting do much to situate the viewer in a past time, when the wars were cold and the bad guys were on the other side of a metaphorical curtain. We're introduced full bore into the jargonistic world of British Intelligence of the late 70s, witnessing an operation go awry resulting in a beurocratic shakeup. The fact that the film ties its central shakeup to office politics belies the fact that this is a tale of procedure, exposing the almost banal elements that shape an agency that is, after all, simply another Government department.
The structure of the film is purposely opaque, with an editing scheme that will leave those prone to be fed their films in linear fashion grasping for a coherent throughline. It must be said that this style could easily, in lesser hands, come across as mere gimmick. Instead, the very nature of the story (and the mystery driving the plot) is teased out in this mashup of flashbacks. Often we're drawn back to an event, with the action slowing down so that dialogue becomes even more spare, and we're left to judge the micro expressions of those in the memory. It's as if we're drawn into the investigative process through montage, and it's pulled off in an extremely effective fashion.
The cinematography may also be considered old fashioned on first blush, but it fits the style of the film to a T. Long lens work is top notch - a bravura scene involving the landing of a plane coming closer into the background of a two-shot is manna for any film nerd, as is some beautiful composition at a safe house across from Big Ben, a wonderful cut exposing a change of focal length that brings the tower into a looming focus. I've yet experience Alfredson's Swedish works, but the craft that he and his principal collaborators (cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and cutter Dino Jonsäter) bring to the table for this, his English-language debut, is exhilarating.
Finally, there's the cast, the fabulous assemblage of top British talent that anchors the film and provides most of its thrills. Oldman is at the top of his game, a presence akin to Olivier at his finest without the staginess that sometimes crept in to Sir Larry's form. With the crinkle of his nose or the focusing of the eye he manages to guide the film with grace and subtlety, as if the thread of the story is gliding upon ice, jostled gently by the perspicacity of the man. A film of interior processing, the filmmakers choose not to belabor the process through egregious narration - instead, it's up to the cast and editing schema to guide us along the way.
John Hurt leads the rest of the ensemble, along with likes of Colin Firth and Ciarán Hinds as the old guard, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy as the new. Cumberbatch in particular shows a wider range than I'd seen from his television work, and his future seems secure as a leader in a new generation of Brit-thespian. Similarly, Hardy continues his run of challenging, compelling roles, in this film playing on a knife's edge and managing to keep control of a character that in less sure hands could have been bathetic. Certainly this is a white, upper class boys club tale, but the female characters do make their mark, none more indelibly (pun intended) than Svetlana Khodchenkova's turn as Irina, again a character sketched out just enough to grasp far more than what's given either by dialogue or visual exposition.
I think it fair to say that this is a film that will be shown and cherished by those open to its charms for many years - it's a timeless work of craft focusing on the common foibles of disloyalty and hubris overcome by cunning , wit, and perceptive intelligence. Stylistically drawing from previous forms, yet in the end presented with exhilarating style, TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER SPY is a new classic, a remarkable work from a group of fine performers and craftspeople.
For all those that look at the films of the golden age and chide that "they don't make them that way anymore", here's a fine example that a film can be fresh, intelligent, drawing from the past while carving out its own unique and very contemporary vision.
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