A film’s central character will usually become the face of the story being told. They will speak when something needs to be said, gasp when something is shocking and cry when something is sad. Other characters will make contributions too, but our guide will always be the one in the middle. By watching that character, the audience understands the film. The story can be read by connecting the dots, but understanding what those connections and dots mean on an emotional level requires a face and a body and a heart to read.
But what if that character had no interest in emotion? What if everything in existence to him was only a matter of connecting dots and people merely a set of tools by which to do so? Someone whose body was not moved by the beat of a heart, but the tick-tock of a metronome moving back and forward, never to falter, never to stop. Tick. Tock. What if that was how we were asked to see life?
George Smiley wishes to ask you that question.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an immaculately paced film. The pieces of its elaborate mystery are put in place gradually enough that the complexities of its bigger picture can be read and understood without another arriving too quickly, but never so slowly that the picture dulls from too much time passing without another connection to make. It assumes that you are grown up enough to find the correct way of putting those pieces together by yourself, without having to be told what you are looking at when basic logic should make it clear. Without the need to explain itself, its timing never falters. Piece by piece by piece. Tick. tock.
The film tells its story this way because that is how its main character, George Smiley, understands it. John le Carré, the author of the adapted novel, described Smiley as a man who has perfected the spymaster’s art of listening. That is how Smiley takes in the story: where other film characters achieve their aims by action and reaction, Smiley verges on inaction. Gary Oldman plays him as a man defined by his stillness as much as he reads others by their actions. He sits back and listens to the signals being sent. As le Carré also described, those signals are not just words, but the language of the body. An anxious sweat, a furrowed brow, a heightened shrug. Just as people talk with their bodies, so too does Smiley listen with his eyes. Then the dots are linked, the pieces put in place, the picture revealed. No emotion, just signals and connections.
Tomas Alfredson understands Smiley’s way of thinking and his every choice directs his audience to think that way too. His compositions are cold, portraying in washed out colours the drab offices and archives, dimly lit flats and damp winter afternoons. As with its people, the locations of Tinker Tailor tell lies only revealed by careful observation. Who would have thought that such remarkable work as spycraft and subterfuge would unfold in such distinctly unremarkable places? Look closely at the man who unpacks his bag looking for a piece of paper, because something new might go back into the bag alongside all the old books and files. Alfredson shoots so that the audience can listen as Smiley does: the words, yes, but also the language spoken by the movements behind the words. When people are talking, they are framed in mid-shot so that their every motion is captured. Cuts in such cases are rare, happening only when the story cannot function if one particular detail is missed. The stillness of a director hailing from a nation of snow and ice is an ideal match for the intricacies of le Carré’s world.
That methodical approach to storytelling and character is the film’s biggest strength, a rare treat for those who have longed for a serious and intelligent drama amidst the throngs of alternatives whose only goal is to best one another in noise and flash, but also the reason many will take umbrage against it. Anyone expecting the edge-of-your-seat Cold War thriller hinted at by the trailer will feel deceived by the systematic pacing. It is a film of questions and answers, not action and assassination. Alberto Iglesias’ compositions play out in the shivering of paranoid strings, but nothing so quick and dramatically blaring as was used in the marketing.
Though token efforts are made to show the effects of a broken friendship or betrayed love, viewers are so efficiently taught to listen to rather than empathise with the characters that such instances do not register emotionally. They are just more dots to be connected, rather than people to connect to. The chess pieces taped the faces of the five suspects is a uncommonly garish piece of symbolism, but sums up how the people depicted are to be seen. There is no tragedy felt in watching one of these characters realise he has betrayed a woman he cared for, because, spymaster that the viewer has become, all that matters is what it means and what dot it links up with. Everything is seen from one step removed, strengthening the mystery at the cost of the soul. When that mystery is let down by the limitations of the medium, having to cram several hundred pages into only two hours by reducing the clues to only those most vital and thereby making almost all of them point towards just one of the otherwise underdeveloped five, the lack of engagement elsewhere becomes a more serious issue.
That niggle aside – and it is a niggle, because seeing the truth revealed is still satisfying, even if the outcome is predictable long before – Tinker Tailor achieves great success in everything it sets out to do. If the viewer’s hopes are aligned, they will find a masterclass in how to write, direct and edit a film to reflect on every level a deliberate choice in how its story is told. If they are looking for something, anything else, disappointment will ensue. It is a story of deduction, not emotion; an action film only in the sense that taking in the actions of each character and realising what they are really saying is what passes for excitement. Do you see the man or the metronome? That is the key to understanding the film and the question George Smiley wishes to ask you.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is out now in the UK. It will be released in the US on December 9th.