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Terence Clarke

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Posted: 01/01/12 09:25 PM ET

In the new film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, weather sets the scene and provides the underlying emotional theme for the action. It snows and rains throughout the movie, symbolically appropriate since the story deals with the Cold War and spy activities between the Soviets and the British in the early 1960's. Relations between the two nations are frigid. The characters spy upon one another, steal each others' secrets, murder each other and drink a great deal, most probably to alleviate the leaden emotional weight of so much ill-natured double-dealing.

The story is simple. There is a high-up mole in the British operation who is betraying secrets to the highest levels of the Soviet operation. The one honest man who can discover this mole's identity is George Smiley, played with consummate, though featureless, skill by Gary Oldman. He does discover the bad guy, and that's it. Role the credits.

Smiley is an extraordinarily repressed man who, no pun intended, can only smile at the various ironies he perceives in somebody else's foolishness. He hides behind thick eyeglasses and allows his expensive, beautifully tailored clothing to smother any idiosyncratic body movement he may have had as a youth. He is usually tired. He walks slowly. Even when he wields a pistol, as happens in one scene only, he holds it at his side as though it's an empty spoon or a silent telephone. With the help of a young associate, Peter Guillam, played with buttoned-up and tight-lipped bravado by Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ricki Tarr, an out-on-the-edge freelancer working against the Soviets (the actor Tom Hardy plays him with at least some brio), Smiley goes about investigating records and transcripts of several of his very high-ranking colleagues in the British Service. The suspect British agents are all quite chilly men as well, even Bill Haydon (the usually expressive Colin Firth), a spy/bureaucrat who is a womanizer and a closeted homosexual as well. Firth's sexuality is unconvincing here on both scores. He appears bored most of the time.

There are two problems with this film. One is that it is dull, from first to last. Igor Stravinsky once said, about contemporary music composition, that a piece may appear arbitrary, but it must not be arbitrary. It is possible to make a film about the wintry boredom of Cold War espionage that is not wintry itself. Witness the 2006 film The Lives of Others, in which the East German investigator (the late Ulrich Mühe) is as leaden a man as could possibly exist. At one point, he is nonetheless able to ravish the soul of the viewer with a single tear running down his cheek. Graham Greene's The Third Man, made in 1950, is set in post-World War II Vienna and is also a film beset by the cold of the international politics of the time, The first shot, though, of Harry Lime (performed with irresistible charm by Orson Welles) is so electrifying that you cannot wait for his re-appearances, and the film rewards us with one of the most gripping pursuits of a villain that I have ever seen, in which Lime is hunted down in the Vienna sewers.

Nothing like that happens in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I cannot remember smiling at anything that was said or shown in this film. Most of the time, I allowed the dialogue to pass slowly and fitfully into my mind, with the same plodding spiritlessness with which it was uttered by the actors. The weather, the acting, the script... all have too much silent chill and inescapable rain.

The second problem is one that all storytellers must deal with. There has to be in every story at least one character for whom the reader or viewer really cares. Someone has got to matter emotionally. Be it the hero or the villain or someone central in between, at least one major character must be someone who moves us and whose welfare matters to us. Someone interesting. Someone possessed of willful idiosyncrasies, driven, murderous intensity, fascinating evil, betrayed virtue, wacky comedy, whatever, in whom we can invest our emotions. For me, there is not a character in this film of such a stature.

 

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