“Survival, as Jim Prideaux liked to recall, is an infinite capacity for suspicion.”

– John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)

The chill of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy creeps in like Carl Sandburg’s fog “on little cat feet”, under the skin and through to the bone, purveying its quarry with an inscrutable glance and moving on without a trace; as a true spy, the damage left in its wake is devastating, while its instigator goes undetected. Accordingly, the film is possibly one of the most beautifully orchestrated espionage “thrillers” in cinematic history, escaping tropes of shoot-outs and car chases, and leaving remnants of something equally understated and unsettling.  Like an explosion in reverse, it unfolds not with a bang, but with a whimper.

For Alfredson, the actual plot of the film – while masterfully complex as per le Carré’s marvelously dense text – is not so much the focal point as is conveying the aesthetics rather than the functionality of Cold War espionage. Movements and angles are precise as the gears of a pocketwatch, and suits and glances are sharp as rapiers.  All this occurs as if in a game of fencing within oppressively claustrophobic spaces, pulsing with nervous tension and wariness; taut as a violin string, such that even a gentle shudder creates waves of suspicion. The visual style and atmosphere generated by Alfredson’s infinitely patient and controlled aesthetic echo Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Bertolucci’s Il conformista (1970), and Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967), all featuring surreptitiously taciturn gentlemen caught in dangerous games. Even so, Tinker Tailor goes a step further in creating a sense of hyper-isolation; as much is said without dialogue as with it, with a furtive gesture or glance.

Despite being set in 1970’s London, Alfredson takes no pleasure in harbouring nostalgia for the era. The domestic colour palette of browns, taupes, and greys, like so much of the film, does not merely serve a functional purpose, but an aesthetic one, carefully blending between what is to be obscured and what is to be revealed: a battlefield in disguise. Similarly, the tone of the film is set as much through its meticulous production design as it is through Alfredson’s masterful cinematic eye: the voyeuristic camera angles play with shadows, silhouettes, and lighting as does a swordsman with blades. The feeling of being watched never quite escapes – for the characters, as well as the viewer- as if one is seeing things which are not meant for prying eyes. The gently burning flame of tension never quite vanishes, but escalates at key moments, making the brief but starkly brutal moments of violence that much more effective.

As for the cast, there is hardly a finer group which could have been assembled, each note-perfect in their parts, however brief some were – in particular, Mark Strong’s tight-jawed loner Jim Prideaux, and the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch’s loyal and cautious Peter Guillam. However, it is Gary Oldman’s George Smiley that is the keystone of the film, hypnotising until the very last. Not nearly enough can be said about Oldman, who is all but astonishing. Like most of his impressive filmography, he again proves to be a scene-stealer, but of a very different quality. Oldman’s Smiley is ruminative and laconic, patient and solitary, but under which lies a quiet and menacing danger; much as Lucifer might passively comment on the weather before extracting your soul.

The essence of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can be captured in a single image – a darkened room in a Georgian flat, a man seated in an armchair with a whiskey sour in one hand, and a pistol in the other. Waiting. And so begins a cinematic exercise in patience and control, of ghostlike movements and pervasive danger. Just as Alfredson’s treatment of Let the Right One In became a character study rather than a horror film, he lends a similar treatment to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, turning the spy-genre on its head into a thoughtful and restrained examination of masculinity and isolation. No explosions, no rooftop chases – just a middle-aged bespectacled man seated on a bench, reading yesterday’s post. Waiting.

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