You know what I’ve been thinking about lately?
The Tree of Life.
(Yes I am aware that’s not the movie I’m reviewing here but just go with it).
I didn’t particularly care for the film, but what I heard from those who did is that it rewards patience, and insight, and a deeper understanding of the film’s themes- audience members who really put in the effort to take everything in end up getting more out of the film.
And so I wondered to myself, “Well, how about a movie that requires that same level of patience and attention to detail, but rewards viewers with the story itself and not something more abstract?”
Which brings me to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy-to-follow movie. The story is labyrinthine, with new threads appearing and layering upon one another again and again over the course of the film. Plus, it seems to focus more on building the tension and intrigue than it does on making sure the viewer knows what’s going on- making it that much harder to follow (large story points are presented with no fanfare whatsoever, so drift off for a moment and you might miss something big without realizing it).
Lucky for me, I happened to catch onto this pretty early on into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (please, at this point let me just refer to it as TTSS for brevity’s sake) and I spent the next two hours in a state of deep, deep focus. I ran over every single aspect of the plot in my head as I watched new things unfurl onscreen. I tried to figure out every character’s motives for every minuscule action. I (amateurishly) psychoanalyzed everyone and everything happening throughout TTSS.
And in doing so I got so very attached to this film.
TTSS starts out, more or less, with a simple idea. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) attempts to uncover a mole in “The Circus” (British Intelligence), having retired after handling a botched mission in Hungary. Oldman plays nearly every scene cool, composed, and near silent- everything we learn about who he is comes in a slow, purposeful trickle that builds over the course of the film. And it’s that build that makes everything so powerful- Smiley starts off as a stony facade, but as the story develops and the audience gets more glimpses into the heart of his character (often through tiny asides or details- a mention of having gone without sleep, a sense of distance between him and his drunken cohorts at the British Intelligence Christmas Party) we start to form a sense of closeness with him.
The plot works more or less the same way. What starts as a story about one failed mission adds more and more in one continuous stream- with every new character and plot development presented to us, the story becomes considerably denser and more difficult to follow. But, if you can follow along, the reward is pretty fantastic (besides the obvious reward of, you know, being able to follow the movie)- as everything builds towards its eventual climax, the tension in the film’s high points is truly remarkable. For a spy movie, there’s almost no gunplay whatsoever (I’m trying to think now and I can only come up with four actual bullets fired throughout the whole running time), and nearly all of that is in the film’s climactic moments. Plus, as everything up until that point was intelligence-and-information-related intrigue, when things finally become life-threatening the film gets a wonderful, gripping sense of dread.
And speaking of the ending, the final montage that ends the film is just so, so great. So great. Set to Julio Iglesias’ “La Mer” (it’s Bobby Darin’s “Beyond The Sea” in French), we get a last look at each player as the dust finally settles on the story, and the song’s peppy, upbeat nature works wonderfully as a contrast to just how many awful things have happened to each character over the course of the film.
Now, seeing as it’s awards season and I have the feeling Jean Dujardin is going to be winning this year’s Best Actor statue, I’d like to take a moment to shill on behalf of Gary Oldman’s talent.
Even though Dujardin was incredible in The Artist and totally deserves a win. That’s not the point here.
So, anyway on to the gushing- I could name a whole bunch of actors who are very talented but mostly stick to a variation on the same role every time- Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, George Clooney (think about it- how often does Morgan Freeman play someone who ISN’T wizened by age? And when is Denzel NOT brash and headstrong) but Gary Oldman seems to have this innate ability to not always challenge himself with new and interesting roles, but also to always know exactly what movie he’s in.
Let me explain that last bit so it doesn’t sound so stupid. When the movie is campy (The Fifth Element), Oldman chews the scenery accordingly (to a hilarious extent). When the movie requires only the most serious of facial expressions (TTSS), Oldman throws down with an oscar-caliber performance. In the Batman films he does a fine job as Commissioner Gordon but never oversteps the boundaries of his role or attempts to overshadow the big heroes and villains- he does just what’s needed. And as Ignitus the Dragon in the 2006 video game The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning, he has all the gravity and fire-breathing qualities that a… video game dragon… should have.
Anyway, just take a gander at his IMDB filmography and be amazed by how much variety is there.
Do it. I’ll wait.
You back? Ok good- because I’m just about to wrap this up, but as I do let me make the following comment:
I really liked this film. A whole lot. But let that not distract you, gentle reader, from its flaws- it is very, very hard to follow at times (while I was able to understand just about everything, it also took at least five minutes following most of the plot developments to digest and understand what I had just seen). It’s a movie you’d see if you’re prepared for a long night full of thought and analysis, and if you’re prepared to put in all that effort, it’s more than worth your while.
Also, as far as gripes go, when the villain is finally revealed (no spoilers, don’t worry), there’s not too much in the way of motive. Just that the villain has grown tired of Western culture and would prefer that the East would rise into power. And I assume money was probably involved too.
But really, in this kind of story it’s more of a whodunit than a whydunit.
And on that note I shall leave you once again. Until next time!