My only knowledge prior to watching Tinker Tailor Solider Spy was the massive adoration it seemed to acquire from seemingly nowhere: otherwise known as “the buzz”. Teaser posters, pre-release posters, post-release posters, fan posters, and minimal posters. Buzz. Cumberbatch. Oldman. Hardy. Buzz. Fangirl excitement, cinephile anticipation. Buzz.
Within the first five minutes I realized the film would be a challenge to watch. I expected by the time the credits rolled I would need to hit IMDB to make sense of it all. Within seven minutes I was frustrated. Not because I didn’t understand whatever there was to understand — but I hadn’t prepared for the bland, oatmeal fog of a film. The numb monotone, monochrome film which struggled to unfold. Within twenty I wanted to quit. But I endured. Where’s my trophy, where’s my t-shirt — and what did I just watch?
Though Tinker‘s green-screen scenes instantly removed themsleves from the rest of the film with a stark laziness — Director Tomas Alfredson certainly worked extremely hard to obscure any linear narrative or human quality from the characters. There are hundreds of films which are superior at hiding information and obscuring timelines. They do so while maintaining a lively narrative and a pulse of life.
In a video workshop on acting for film, Michael Caine said actors shouldn’t work so hard for the camera, they should be relaxed. He goes on to show the amazing difference it makes. While Caine is right, of course, the camera does pick up details — it cannot overcome comatose acting, the most omnipresent flaw in Tinker. I’ve never seen such great actors directed to resemble corpses gently maneuvered by thin strings.
The hilarious thing is I’m all for subtly. I don’t enjoy films beating their audience over the head, spoon-feeding every plot point. But there is a difference between subtle and obscure, a middle ground between being overfed and malnourished. At least those extremes are about feeling something. Here, the lack of emotion borders on farce.
Obvious care was put into each location to create a tone, a style. Nearly every scene contained orange. But I only know this because of the commentary from Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman. There was nothing to hold your eye, nothing truly memorable save for an orange sound-proof wall. It wandered from the orange space, the grey space, the light grey space, the outdoor dark grey space, to the office brown space. Really. Compare it to production design for The King’s Speech.
Though I’m sure it was intended to be deep, the theme was just as forgettable. There was nothing in the rest of of the script for it to stick to. How can a film which suggests both sides are equally immoral do so even as it presents evidence to the contrary? The Russians shot a woman in the head, tortured a man, disemboweled a man, and slit a man’s throat. The British George Smiley let a bee out of window and quietly fired a few traitorous bureaucrats. But yeah, that’s the same.
From my experience with other adaptations of the works of John le Carré — writing women is not his strong suit. The men have jobs, the women take off their clothes. Yet unlike Bond, this is presented as reality. Fascinating then how during the commentary both Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman kept mentioning what an important part Ann Smiley played. Practically everything came back to her in some way but she was not represented in the film at all. For someone so important, it would have been nice to at least see her face.
It’s fine by me if you like the books or love the movie. I would argue the feeling stems from something altogether different than the images on the screen, but it doesn’t really matter. What I realized again is why some rules of filmmaking exist — they work.
What I know is after surviving Tinker Tailor Solider Spy I am not going to take any more guff about indie or foreign language films. I’m not listening to anyone who scolds me for the subtle details I place in my own scripts. No film I like or write could be as poorly paced as what I just watched and if the world will fall for Tinker — giving awards, heaping Tumblr praise, even if it is mostly from the art and ovaries crowd — anything has fair value.
Films with “buzz” rarely show themselves to be worth watching. The reason they have “buzz” is because the images aren’t memorable and no one can tell you what the story was actually about.