Wednesday, December 7, 2011



- There's a truly great movie buried somewhere in this one. Certainly, there's enough intrigue here to make me curious about the book on which the film is based, and the 70's-era TV miniseries (starring Alec Guinness) that received much acclaim at the time. But, frustratingly, a potentially badass spy story is muddled by some head-scratching directorial choices and an incredibly confusing narrative. As much style and atmosphere as this movie exudes, there's a real disconnect between the film's story and its storytelling style. It's a story that would likely have worked best as a precisely-told potboiler - a mystery that slowly but surely connects the dots and fits everything together like clockwork. All the ingredients are there for one hell of a Cold War spy story. But director Tomas Alfredson (the man behind the superb Let The Right One In), strangely, chooses to tell this complex story in an incredibly hard-to-follow manner. Abrupt flashbacks, sudden scene cuts, and a bare minimum of exposition creates a situation where the nuances of the story are near-impossible to follow via a single viewing.

Luckily, even though Alfredson's narrative flounders, the sense of atmosphere and tension he manages to create is extremely strong. As he did with Let The Right One In, the director sets an immersive tone, creating a constant, palpable sense of coldness, dreariness, and looming dread. The bulk of the film takes place in London in the early 70's, and the period and place is captured effortlessly - the hair, the fashions, the details all establish a particular mood and era, from moment one.

And the cast is just jam-packed with powerhouse actors. Honestly, I give all the credit in the world to the cast, because though individual scenes tend not to gel into a cohesive whole, there are, still, some damn good individual scenes. And again, a lot of that is due to how much badassery and gravitas the main players have. Gary Oldman, for one, is in fine form as our lead - George Smiley. In short, Smiley is a recently-retired British intelligence agent who's been brought back into the fold to expose an alleged mole in the highest ranks of British Intelligence (or "The Circus," as it's referred to here). A recent mission in Budapest has gone horribly wrong, resulting in the kidnapping and interrogation of a top agent (played by Mark Strong), and the death of a head intelligence officer known as Control (John Hurt). As it turns out, the botched mission led to the discovery that someone in power was in fact playing for the other team (namely, the Soviets). And so Smiley is brought in as an impartial observer, and his investigation begins, leading him down a rabbit's hole of lies, corruption, and double-crosses. But as I was saying, Oldman is a commanding presence here. Oldman tends to play crazy characters, but here his M.O. is that he's cool, calm, and collected - mostly unfazed by those out to get him, methodically going about his investigation like a great chess player slowly setting up his opponent for defeat. Oldman is joined by a veritable who's who of great British actors. John Hurt, Toby Jones (second movie I've seen him in in a week!), Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Thomas Hardy - among others. Firth is very good as usual as a smarmy intelligence agent. Hardy is excellent as a double-crossed agent who's now on-the-lamb. And Strong is a scene stealer - as the agent who was kidnapped in Budapest, and who, after being psychologically damaged by torture at the hands of his captors, is now laying low as a schoolteacher somewhere in the countryside.

Still, with a cast this awesome, I kept waiting for some moments of true intensity to come ... but they never really did. The movie is so subdued, so methodically-paced, and so narratively all-over-the-place, that it becomes hard to really latch on to any of these characters. It just feels like this movie is underwater sometimes - like you're catching glimpses of plot, of character, of story, but never seeing things clearly. This is evident in the way that Alfredson tends to have long, lingering shots of his actors' faces, begging us to read into their slightest change in expression, and yet when key plot points are revealed, he'll jarringly cut away, just as we're beginning to process what it is that we're seeing. I sort of get what he's aiming for - and actors like Oldman and Strong excel working in this stlye - both are masters of the subtle gesture, the slight shift in expression - and it is, indeed, fun to observe them and watch and wait for clues or tells. That said, I'm all for films that don't talk down to an audience, that make us do some mental aerobics in order to put the puzzle pieces together - but this was just too much in my opinion. I mean, the movie is essentially set up as a mystery - we know that, barring some game-changing twist, one of the key officials at The Circus has to be the mole. But we're never really given clues one way or another as to who it might be. Until the very end of the film, we have no guesses as to anyone's motivations, their backstories, or the likelihood of their guilt. Meanwhile, seemingly major plot points - Smiley's fractured relationship with his ex-wife, the sexuality of his younger partner Peter, the background between Firth and Strong's characters - all are touched on but, in my mind, never addressed or explored in a way that's at all narratively satisfying. It's one thing to be subtle, but it's another to sabotage the power of your own narrative. Again, I'm not sure why Alfredson chose to tell the story in a manner that was so detrimental to the narrative flow of the film.

I express this frustration because I really wanted to love this movie, and there are things about it that really are fantastically done. I can't argue that, aesthetically, this is one of the most thick-with-atmosphere movies of the year. And the cast is just loaded with great talent that makes every utterance interesting, every exchange compelling. And yet, the cast is so strong, and the story so rife with potential, that you want to see it told in a way that 100% delivers on the promise of the film. As it is, I sort of kept waiting for the other shoe to drop from a narrative standpoint. Ultimately, few of the major revelations had as much of an impact on me as I thought they should have - it was all just too muddy and confusing. At the same time, there is undoubtedly a certain pleasure to be had just taking the movie in scene by scene, watching great actors like Oldman, Strong, Hardy, Hurt, and Firth interacting, all while wearing sweet 70's clothes and haircuts. There is a lot to like and appreciate here, a lot to drink in - but I also wonder if this could have been a real knockout, had the movie told its story in a more cohesive, coherant manner.

My Grade: B

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