Now Playing: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Fans of conventional spy thriller genre films may be disappointed by the lack of “action” in this quiet and elegant adaptation of le Carré’s novel; the few scenes of violence and suspense are quick and perfunctory, and serve the narrative rather than shock. Fans of the novel will appreciate this adaptation for its faithfulness to the pace and tone. TTSS is not so much a narrative as it is a snapshot of that indefinite, ambiguous, watchful time between major Cold War events and revelations. The top floor of the Circus, appropriately, has the feel of purgatory; in this Cold War setting, everything and yet nothing happens there.

The key existential quandary for le Carré’s spies is that unlike a physical, military war, they have no defined arena to demonstrate acts of heroism. In many ways they think of themselves as soldiers, invoking loyalty, patriotism, and the closeness of an old boys’ club. But few of them are real agents of their work. They mostly wait: wait for information, wait for a traitor to accidentally reveal himself, wait for orders. Between cycles of this inaction, they attempt to actively perform, seeking new alliances, courting double-agents, passing information. The film successfully captures that tension between the heroic and the bureaucratic, and more important, illustrates the ways in which the labyrinthine structure of the Secret Service effectively prevents heroic acts.

TTSS is beautifully photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema, who makes inventive use of doorways, colonnades, and windows to capture the feeling of constant surveillance, and was designed by Marina Djurkovic, who takes the visual tropes of mid-century modern/spy culture and gently overlays a feel of decay and death.

Tinker Tailor Solder Spy. Dir. by Tomas Alfredson. Focus Features, et. al. (2011).