That Bloody Mess In Budapest

The Circus

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Dir. Tomas Alfredson, 2011)

John Le Carre’s character George Smiley has appeared in numerous books and films since his debut in the 1960 novel Call for the Dead, but none of those works are better known than the seminal Tinker, Tailor. I first became aware of John Le Carre’s oeuvre when the first trailer for Tinker, Tailor was released sometime in 2011, and quickly realized that I had some catching up to do. After reading, and enjoying, the novel this film is based on, I read a few other Le Carre novels, but in the long wait for Tinker to hit theaters, forgot how much I had been anticipating it. Well, I’ve finally gotten around to the movie, and am kicking myself for not catching it in theaters .

The premise for both the novel and film are simple: Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6 (nicknamed the “Circus” by it’s agents) has had a mole operating within its ranks for quite some time and the job of rooting him out has fallen to the recently outed George Smiley. The plot gets much more complex (some would say convoluted) from there, but that is the basic gist of it. Alfredson (whose previous film Let The Right One In, was a horror masterpiece) and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, have taken on the herculean task of adapting a dense book whose previous adaption was a 350-minute BBC miniseries. In just under two hours, however, they have managed to cover the plot of the novel (with a few minor adjustments, most notably the location and details of the incident that led to Smiley’s ouster) without leaving anything major out. It would have been very easy for the film to fall into a rut of expository dialogue in order to insure that the audience is keeping up, but Alfredson and co. embark on the exact opposite route, by letting the characters actions speak for themselves, as well as sprinkling in flash-backs that pertain to current events, and help the viewer keep up. The film also manages to look absolutely beautiful while doing all this, something which should not be overlooked. It has become the habit of some filmmakers to drench their films in sepia-toned colors and add copious amounts of film grain to achieve a look befitting of a story set in the 1970s. This film, however, does not give the impression that it was filmed in the era it takes place, but instead relies on time-appropriate sets, costumes and  cars to invoke the feeling of the 1970s in the viewer. I was not alive in the 1970s, nor I have ever had the opportunity to visit Europe, but the film genuinely came across as looking through a time portal to that era and place.

Many reviewers have complained that this film was too difficult to understand if one had not been properly briefed by the novel beforehand. I have to heartily disagree with that sentiment. There will most certainly be points in the film where you will be confused, but the film will explain everything the viewer needs to know in due time, and if you come away not sure what a certain character’s name was, I don’t believe it will affect your enjoyment in any way. As I said before, the screenplay is a perfectly condensed version of the novel, and acts as a great companion piece. I have already previously read the novel, but watching this has me itching to pick it up again. The screenwriters knew there was no way of fitting in every single aspect of the original work, and chose the bits and pieces that would fit in the 2-hour time frame that encapsulated the overall themes and messages of the novel.

[Spoilers Ahead]

Speaking of themes, I found the film was an absolute treasure trove of subtext and a perfect example of using the camera as a story-telling device. For some minor subtext, we’ll start with a scene towards the beginning of the movie. Smiley and Control have been ousted due to the Budapest debacle, and are now hot on the trail of the mole, with inside help from active MI6 agent Peter Guillam (played by the superb Benedict Cumberbatch). The camera spots them driving around London through the back window of their car, and the eye of the viewer is quickly caught by the meandering flight path of a mosquito. One by one, it buzzes around the head of each occupant of the car, before finally being freed through a window Smiley opens. The mosquito is clearly representative of the mole that haunts and bothers all three: Control lost his job thanks in part to him, as did Smiley, and Guillam is working side-by-side with the infiltrator every day, not knowing who to trust. It is a simple shot, relatively easy to miss, but it reminds the viewers of why these three men care so deeply about outing the mole, and it does so simply by putting a mosquito in a car with the three main characters. The mosquito shows up again in the film (well, probably not literally the same mosquito, but you know what I mean) after the Russian agent that Ricki was sent to investigate is murdered. As his body is discovered by Ricki, a mosquito floats lazily toward the top of the screen for a  few seconds, reminding the viewer that is the work of the mole, desperate to close any loose ends. In a movie decried by  many for being confusing, the director is constantly sprinkling in little flourishes that can help to fill in the viewer, if he/she is actively engaged in the film.

The mosquito bit is interesting, but I found there to be much more to be discussed in regards to what the film has to say about voyeurism and the transparency of the modern world. The film is full of shots that appear to be from the vantage point of someone secretly observing the actions of Smiley and his co-conspirators. Take this shot for example:

From a purely aesthetic stand-point, it’s a terrible shot. Half of the screen is obscured, and you can barely see the characters involved in the scene. Yet, in the context of the film, it works perfectly. Smiley and crew are not only going up against the Circus, who have eyes and ears all over the place, but against an unknown foreign body who have infiltrated the Circus. There are so many voyeuristic shots such as this, it is almost as if the film is suggesting that Smiley’s actions are watched throughout the film, but that whoever is doing the watching is either powerless to stop him, or unwilling to. In addition to shots such as the one above, the film also has myriad shots that use transparent objects (windows, water) as commentary on the characters of the film. Take the wife of the Russian agent for example: she lives in a apartment that looks like it was literally lifted from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with its giant windows, and inefficient blinds.

Notice also in the above shot, how compartmentalized the apartment looks. Each room exists in it’s own glass box, observable by all, and the characters within the box are free to move around as they please, but no matter what they do they cannot escape from the larger box itself. Every character in the film that attempts to get out of the intelligence world dies or has nothing left to live for: the wive of the Russian is brutally murdered by her own people, Bill, who most likely would have lived out the rest of his live in disgrace in prison, is shot by Jim, and Ricki is last seen standing in the rain, on the opposite side of the bars, free from the world of spying and subterfuge, but feeling empty due to the death of the Russian’s wife.

In the scene depicted above, the Russian’s wife leans out of her window, hungrily observing the “normal” world below, before quickly pulling herself back into her compartment, and closing the window. She can look out, but she cannot escape.

There are two notable exceptions to the litany of scenes set in wide open rooms with big, revealing windows, and they both take place in locations used by MI6 and it’s Russian counterpoint. Above we see the room that the Russians interrogate Jim in, which has only one window, which is boarded up rather severely. The Russians are acutely aware of the transparency which is prevalent throughout the rest of Tinker, Tailor, and do everything in their power to avoid it. The Circus is of a similar mindset. Just look at the room in which the top members of MI6 operate. There is only one door, and no windows. It looks more akin to a prison cell, than it does the boardroom for the highest members of the British intelligence community.

Tinker, Tailor succeeds in almost facet, but it does have it’s shortcomings. In the novel, Jim Prideaux is a much more vital character to the story, and his relationship with the school-boy Bill had quite the emotional impact for me personally. In the film, however, they have cut most of the scenes involving Jim, and included only the ones that directly serve the plot (his introduction, Smiley’s visit, telling the school-boy to stop coming to his trailer, and the final scene in which he shoots Bill). His second-to-last scene feels like it should be emotional and heart-breaking, but it just doesn’t work, we barely know anything about Jim or the boy, and we have little incentive to care about either character. Other than that small  nit-pick, Tinker, Tailor is one of the finer spy-thrillers I’ve ever seen, and is well worth the two hour running time.

1 comment
  1. Betty Cotter said:

    The fly, and the window perspective, are such a great examples of the importance of point of view.
    Why aren’t you majoring in English?

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