Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

In a world where we’ve taken to heart Bond and Bourne, it is actually both exciting and jarring to be reminded of what spies are really like. A few years ago, The American came close, but even it couldn’t resist having a big chase and finish.

A lack of chase scenes, explosions, and shoot-outs in TTSS, however, doesn’t lessen the stakes. It is still a battle of wits against the cost of lives. And most intelligence work is research and waiting. This isn’t to say that there aren’t deaths and violence in this movie, but they aren’t the focus, just the results of the actions.

But a classic spy story isn’t one we’re used to anymore. And, as the movie starts, you’re likely to be both confounded and a tad bored until it starts to come together as there is little attempt to make it “exciting.” Imagine a giant jigsaw with all the pieces dumped out of the box onto a table–this is the way the film is structured and the story told. Bits and pieces slowly come together and reveal information. Moments are replayed with new angles and meaning. The cold-war threat feels exceedingly dated at this point and is likely to put off anyone younger than 45, but that is their loss. Even out of context or as a period piece, this is a well told tale that increases the tension and interest as it goes along and makes no apologies for how it tells that story.

Given that this is the same director that created one of the best horror films of the last few years, Let the Right One In (linked to a review of the remake as my original was lost–but it does talk about Alfredson’s version), I am not surprised by the pacing nor the ability. Alfredson is a consummate story-teller and knows what is important in a tale. Definitely a director to watch in the coming years. If nothing else, the man recognizes superior material to adapt to screen.

The cast list is astounding. And, unlike my comments about Liam Neeson yesterday, all of these actors lose themselves in their roles, regardless of how often we see them. Oldman and Cumberbatch, in particular, get the spotlight, as you may have read from the festival circuit. Each has a rich back-story that they play with quiet intensity. Each has a moment of pure exposure as well, though Oldman’s was directed a bit over the top… much more stage-like than film. Still, each has created a character of astounding restraint and strength while leaving the source of the pain and devotion utterly a cipher.

I’ve not compared this to the 1980 mini-series nor the book from which both were derived as I’ve not experienced either yet. I find myself wanting to get a hold of both now, out of curiosity if nothing else. The source material is dense and intriguing. The era was dark with paranoia and hubris that still affects us today in the world, and certainly in this country. Understanding those roots and relationships is necessary… having grown up during the revolt against all that, I never really internalized the reasons and attitudes. This story provides a good window into that era.

But back to the present. If you haven’t heard about this film yet this year, you will be, and for good reason.

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