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.