Tinker, Tailor, Soldier – but why?

Just got back from seeing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy at the Metro Cinema, Bathurst. For me this was a visual and aural feast. That beautiful, liquid music. That mid-century aesthetic. The stirring burst of the Soviet anthem. The art department’s amazing attention to detail. The scuffedness of things. The wallpaper, the corridors, the types of shoes and socks.  I had a pure nostalgia hit just looking at the swirl of colour on the balloons at the spies’ Christmas party. There’s a photo of me as a tiny child holding a balloon just like that. Do they still make them?

It was nice to be back in the Cold War again – so much more attractive and comprehensible than whatever we’re doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. And nobody ever did a particular type of mid-century aesthetic better than the Soviet sphere of influence.

I loved the slowness. I lapped it up. Nothing like a bit of slowness as an antidote to Hollywood’s blaring cues and cuts. The actors were so instantly inside their characters – all intriguing, deftly differentiated characters – that you forgot all about the acting and went back to enjoying the experience. I loved the frankness about people being old or ugly – Smiley getting his eyes tested, an older woman spy making zero attempt at attractiveness – without making more of it than necessary.

This is a gorgeous, stylish, film and I never stopped enjoying it – in fact I’d happily see it again, listen to that soundtrack again. But there is a problem with it, which is that below its flawless skin, is there actually a beating heart? It feels like there’s a beating heart, but that’s not the same. I watched, knowing that at some point we’d find out which one of these interesting, haunted Englishmen was working for the Other Side. The problem was – it was hard to care or even wonder too much about which one. Maybe that’s the difference between making the film back in the 1970s, when it still all meant something, and doing it now, when it’s about a good wallow in the beauty of another time – because another time always becomes beautiful; nostalgia works like that; the hipster aesthetic works like that. (And I’m as sucked in as the next person.) Or maybe it’s because the art department was ultimately allowed to trump storytelling.

One of the characters actually says this, more or less. Explaining why he became a traitor to his country, he said it was an aesthetic choice, as much as anything. Really? Is an aesthetic sensibility really enough to live or die for? Maybe it is, but if it is, maybe we could have heard more about it.

Speaking of one of the characters speaking – another thing that bothered me was that nobody had a decent conversation in the whole film. What we’d get is a beautiful location, a beautiful set of stairs to go up, a perfect bit of spy-going-upstairs music, the arrival, two words exchanged and then on to the next scene and repeat. There were some exceptions to this rule but I found myself longing for a bit more time at the destination. Arrgh. Why don’t you let people speak once they’ve gone to all that trouble to get up the stairs? And if you’ve gone to so much trouble to evoke a past time, right down to the smoke-fug in every room, why not evoke a little of the conversation of that past time?

I came of age in the last years of the Cold War, when it seemed to stretch back forever and forwards forever. It was a time when you’d arrive on campus straight after high school and be surrounded by people who wanted to talk until three in the morning about socialism, capitalism, feminism, sexuality, utopianism, whether Judaism was a race or a religion, and you read the books and had the discussions and then tried to go out and live according to whatever bracing principles you’d just adopted, because it actually felt like it mattered. And people are still doing similar things today – note the Occupy movement, raving on to each other all night, in tents. Some are even hipsters.

But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is too stylish to get bogged down in ideas, and too stylish to do more than lightly suggest a story of betrayal and terrifying choice.

Anyway, it’s a beautiful film, worth seeing and hearing – but don’t get fooled into believing it’s more than it actually is.

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