December 2, 2011 -- This was supposed to be a spy thriller movie, but it is so subtle, so laid back and so low key that it turns into a spy snoozer. It didn't actually put me to sleep, but I soon lost interest in the film's key puzzle, which is, who among five suspects at the top of the British foreign intelligence operation (now known as MI-6) is a double agent for the Soviets? That is a big problem for a spy movie, or a mystery movie of any kind.
The problem stems from a lot of low-key, bland characters, who never seem to develop personalities worthy of interest. The movie is based on a novel by John le Carré (who has a cameo appearance in the film in a Christmas party scene). We know that John le Carré can write successful spy novels (he has written books which have turned into very successful films, such as, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “The Constant Gardener”) and can create interesting characters, so that's not the problem. The same book has been successfully adapted before. The 1979 TV miniseries “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” starring Alec Guiness, has gotten a lot of praise. So what happened to make this such a snoozer?
Watching this film I was struck by the clever way it uses scenes to wordlessly set up the next scenes with very quick jump cuts. It also uses very quick silent scenes, such as a very brief shot of John Hurt (who plays “Control”) lying awkwardly next to his bed. O.K., so Control is dead. That's done. What the film does not do is use its characters to explore these situations. We get no sense of what Control's death means to the main character, George Smiley (played in an emotionless manner by Gary Oldman of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.” Smiley is possibly Control's closest friend, but that whole relationship is skipped over like it doesn't matter.
Combining this method of advancing the story while bypassing the relationships between the characters with the usual stiff upper lip of English resverve results in a movie almost entirely devoid of emotion. Sure, there is a little emotion here and there, such as a Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke of “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands”). Connie is depressed over having been fired from her job at the Circus (the nickname of the British secret service operation). She is awkwardly clingy when Smiley comes calling on her seeking information in his investigation into a possible Russian mole in the highest levels of the Circus. She remisices about the old days years ago, the way some older people do, saying, “It was a good time back then.” Smiley replies, “It was a war, Connie.” A couple of other characters with brief spurts of emotion are suspected double agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy of “Warrior”) who is in love, and Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch of the “Sherlock Holmes” TV series) who is assisting Smiley's investigation who gets angry and beats up Ricky Tarr.
While Smiley raises his voice once, he generally seems almost bored with the whole investigation, as does the Mole. When one key character is shot and killed, he seems bored with his own death. The movie seems almost antiseptic in its approach to human relationships. I've seen robots with more emotions. A possible homosexual relationship between two key characters is underplayed to the point of near nothingness. There are wispy hints of deep feelings here and there in the movie, which are almost never consumated.
This is an example of a movie too slick and clever for its own good. Instead of true love, it gives us celluloid masturbation. There has always been this ultra-cool tendency in British spy movies, dating back to at least “The Ipcress File” in 1965, but I don't ever remember seeing one this emotionless. There probably have been some, but few have combined emotional detachment with such technical mastery of filmmaking techniques. This film rates a C.
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