Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Ghost in the Machine

I’ve watched Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy twice now and I’m still not sure I understand all of it. The story, at least in its broad strokes, is fairly simple, but structurally it burrows into little pockets that are sometimes hard to untangle. The film moves not like a river but an octopus at the bottom of the sea; you sense the overall form sliding along, but you can’t always follow the individual tentacles. And yet, I can’t tear myself away from it.

As I’ve said elsewhere, a film you have to see more than once should also be a film you want to see more than once. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy draws you into its atmosphere of dread and anxiety, and it’s hard not to feel uneasy while watching it, even if you don’t quite understand what’s happening. But the thing that’s making me come back to it over and over again is something other than this hard, nervous, thriller element. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Much like last year’s The American (and not unlike Alfredson’s earlier Let the Right One In), the film seems to be saying something about how tenderness insinuates itself into a tense, unfeeling world -- how the soft edges of desire collide with the cold angles of the machine.

Ostensibly, this adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy novel is about the hunt for a mole in a British Intelligence unit (called “The Circus”). Of course, these aren’t glamorous, James Bond-style spies, or even Third Man-style spies. Yes, we get interludes in Budapest and Istanbul, and yes, we get the occasionally nasty bits of violence, but for the most part the film chooses to focus on the methodical drudgery of espionage, and on the gray, airless world that these spies inhabit. The search for the mole is methodical and precise: each section of the film focuses on a different individual in The Circus, as baits are set and traps are laid.  But ever so slowly, the search, at least to the audience’s eyes, begins to reveal some other things about this world and its inhabitants. The intensifying, tightening focus on their doings threatens to expose secret lives, secret desires. These cogs turn out to be – gasp -- very human ones.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy uses mood the way other movies might use plot points. Into this impeccably crafted recreation of a dry, drab, smoky bureaucracy, Alfredson carefully allows sharp little pangs of emotion: A jealous glance, a furtive embrace, a barely-glimpsed and hasty goodbye between two lovers. Maybe that’s why the film always feels like it’s ending. It’s shot in this persistent, autumnal glaze that makes everything seem like the last act of something, which is perhaps the ideal way to make a movie about people hiding very important things.

I haven't read le Carre's novel, but the filmmakers have spoken elsewhere, briefly, about their own addition of  homosexuality into the film. But they've added it in such a glancing manner that you could easily miss it -- in fact, even as I write these words I'm not 100% sure to what extent the element is there, particularly at the end. But that very uncertainty seems to be part of the film's design. It’s amazing how often we’ll catch a glimpse of a body in the film, without ever seeing the face. Like there’s a story not quite being told hovering on the edges of the frame, constantly fleeing from our judgmental glance. We’re never getting the whole story.

In a way, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seems to be saying that humans, even when placed into a well-oiled machine, will find ways to populate the place with their desires, to cut through the oppressive air of the mundane and find tenderness and human warmth – however fleeting, however wrong, however corrosive. In the end it's a film about intimacy -- perhaps even love, perhaps even of the forbidden kind – and how it burgeoned in this steely, unfeeling space. 


  1. Excellent discussion. It was a stroke of genius to add inject the homosexuality into the story. I find it very appropriate that gay men, who must cultivate a double life in the name of respectability (for those who haven't seen the film, it's set in the early '70s), develop, as an unpredicted byproduct, the perfect skill set for espionage, as no less than three of the characters in TTSS do.

  2. That's a very good point, Tony, and I was actually thinking of maybe tying it all back to my earlier post about Alan Turing, the breaker of the Enigma Codes and a monumental figure in the history of British intelligence. But in Turing's case, he was actually out and often openly at odds with the systems in which he was working. Still, there's probably something there. But your point about how the homosexuality actually makes sense as a character detail is dead-on, I think.

  3. Peter Guillam's male lover was an addition of the filmmakers, but the more ambiguous relationship that informs the end of the film (including the tossed off mention of "there's a boy") is actually drawn right from the novel. It's interesting in how it's used to encapsulate the sense of betrayal -- the mole turns on his country and his colleagues, and is matter-of-fact and almost nonchalant about both. It's his betrayal of someone who loved him, whether romantically or not, that seems his only regret, and it's that deception and that heartbreak for which he's ultimately punished.

  4. Interesting. It seems as if, perhaps because the film strips away so much else and chooses to highlight it, that suddenly this relationship (which as I gather in the book is one of just close friendship and partnership) suddenly seems to take on more momentous, romantic overtones? Like I said, I haven't read the book. I just find it interesting that the film seems to be leading us in that direction. Note the match-cut from the bullet-hole in one person's cheek to the teardrop in the other's in that final assassination scene.

  5. Smiley speculates that the two were lovers in the novel -- there's no definitive evidence either way, but the possibility is explicitly raised. (On the other hand, the exact nature of the assassination, with that nice matching up of visuals you mention, is left implied in the book.) One thing that the film doesn't and perhaps can't get across to my satisfaction is how well and how long all of these characters were meant to have known each other -- since they were in school in many cases. They may not like or trust each other anymore, but the relationships they have with each other are deeper and more honest than any they can have in the outside world, the maybe romance being a sort of far extension of that seclusion.

  6. Interesting. There's a hint of that in the photo that we see several times in the film -- they seem younger in it, and I can't recall for sure but are they in rugby clothes?

  7. "They may not like or trust each other anymore, but the relationships they have with each other are deeper and more honest than any they can have in the outside world, the maybe romance being a sort of far extension of that seclusion."

    Yes, that. Perfect, Alison!

  8. The description of the two characters you are discussing in the novel is

    "the iron fist in the velvet glove" or close to these words. Le Carre doesn't do homosexuality much in his novels, but the implication is pretty clear.

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  10. In the end it's a film about intimacy -- perhaps even love, perhaps even of the forbidden kind – and how it burgeoned in this steely, unfeeling space.
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