Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

No, it’s not Men in Black III

As the Oscars continue to push me toward my inevitable aneurysm, great films continue to release on the tail end of awards season.  2012 doesn’t (so far) look like it will be quite the year for film as 2011 was, but there are glimmers of hope here and there.  I’m currently playing tag with the final films of 2011, many of which are still available to see.

Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a quiet spy film in the tradition of Three Days of the Condor and The Good Shepherd.  Based upon a complex spy novel by John le Carré and perhaps inspired by the seven-part TV series from many years ago, the film features a prize collection of male actors, including Oscar-nominated Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Colin Firth, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy, and Ciarán Hinds.  The story follows a few characters, centering around George Smiley (Oldman), whom, after being forced into retirement from the Circus (the British secret service), is tasked with uncovering the identity of a mole.  From the beginning, we know that the mole is sitting at the table, but the filmmakers don’t so much invite us to decode the mystery for ourselves as they do urge us to tag along with Smiley.

What follows is essentially a two-hour series of interviews, through which Smiley and his sidekick, Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) ingeniously smoke the mole out.  Contrary to the usual, I won’t go into detail about the plot, as its movement doesn’t lend itself well to this type of piece.  However, the film contains inspired performances, convincingly suspenseful situations (at the expense of obligatory gunfights, which the less experienced spy-film-viewer may expect here), and some great use of image patterning (keep track of every shot of dripping liquid, if you can).

To the film’s detriment, perhaps, is the uniformly consistent direction by Alfredson.  The cinematography is always solid, but rarely surprising.  In addition, the underuse of music throughout and explosive overuse of “La Mer” at the end is a bit jarring.  Only one female character shows up in the film (Irina, played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), and once Ricki Tarr (Hardy) gets involved with her, there’s not much hope that she’ll last until the denouement.  Perhaps most striking is the lack of characterization for Smiley.  Rather than receiving character-deepening scenes (apart from one, during which he relates a story about meeting Karla, an enemy of Britain), Smiley acts as the linchpin for the movie’s forward action, and the story’s ancillary characters orbit him without ever allowing us to be too curious about him.  We’re not even allowed to see the face of his estranged wife, Ann, who cheats on him with Haydon (Firth) in one of the film’s important subplots.  The film’s other major draw is Mark Strong, who plays Jim Prideaux, a British spy-turned-schoolteacher who has a good relationship with children and a hell of an aim with a .22.  It’s a nice change from his usual villain roles.

Spy movies like this only come out every so often, and it’s just as well, since their quiet nature turns the average American filmgoer’s brain into pudding.  It’s refreshing, however, when a film of this type not only turns out well, but gets a bit of recognition.  Oldman’s Best Actor is coming.  Not this year nor for this film, but soon.

 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011); written by Bridget O’Connor (adapted from John le Carré’s novel); directed by Tomas Alfredson; starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong.

The King’s Speech

Use all your well-learned politesse

I figured it out.  When trudging through the History half of my double-minor, what I really needed from my alma-mater’s History department was Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in place of the aging Vietnam-o-philes paid to drawl over the podium until my ears went numb.

The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s heart-wrenching film concerning the life of King George VI at the cusp of World War II, flips the term “historical drama” on its proverbial head.  Not only is the drama between three or four core characters more engaging than any silly, battle-crammed historical epic, but the narrative also manages better accuracy with historical events.

The story centers around The Prince Albert, Duke of York (who later, of course, becomes King George VI), played by Colin Firth.  After his unfortunate stammer causes disaster at Wembley Stadium’s Empire Exhibition, Albert (“Bertie”) seeks help, at the behest of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the beloved Queen mother, from speech therapist and failed Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The narrative focuses on the relationship between these two men as the Duke struggles with confidence, knowing deep down that he will soon have to take over the responsibilities of the throne from his older brother David (Guy Pearce), who cares more about marrying American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) than leading the British Empire.  The inspired supporting cast also includes Michael Gambon as King George V and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, who skirts caricature at times, but it’s a bit hard not to with Britain’s hammiest Prime Minister.

Despite the tension in the world at the time, Hooper wisely chose not to cast an actor as Adolf Hitler, while still employing some focus on him.  In the rare instances Hitler is shown, he appears as himself in actual footage from the thirties and forties.  The performances of the actors themselves are unrestrained, well-researched and certainly Oscar-grade: our sympathies shift between Firth and Rush, though never far away from either of them.  The Duke desperately needs his stammer to disappear, but he’s still resistant to befriend a member of the common folk.  Carter, who plays the elder Elizabeth, proves she can do more than act weird, and her character is racked with sympathy.  Logue aspires to be an actor, and despite his age still attends small auditions for major roles in productions of Shakespeare.  Pay close attention during the final shots of the film and try to imagine what Logue is really thinking.

The cinematography also delivers the occasional surprise.  Instead of epic (there’s that word again), majestic shots, Hooper constricts us into narrow hallways and oblong rooms.  Heroic closeups of Albert and Elizabeth pop up here and there, but Albert’s face always reflects familiarity with these narrow hallways, as if he embodies the very words attempting to escape his throat.  His long walks through the halls of the castle and along the sprawling streets of Britain mirror the nation’s march toward war – a war Albert himself will have to declare personally in the titular speech.  The big scene itself is handled adeptly by Hooper, wisely staying with Firth and Rush, briefly allowing us to leave the room to see the reactions of others, but even when we leave the room, the tension does not cease.

Historically, the film takes minor liberties with Winston Churchill and actually waters down Edward (omitting the fact that he was probably a Nazi sympathizer and, along with Wallis, was acquainted with Adolf Hitler).  As Roger Ebert states, however, “This film finds a more interesting story about better people.”  Albert and Elizabeth were the parents of Queen Elizabeth II, and have for some reason not been given as much attention as the universally antagonistic pair of Edward and Wallis.  I suppose it’s the same controversial flair that got that Sid and Nancy film made.

The King’s Speech (2010); written by David Seidler; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon