The Illusion of Clarity in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Tomas Alfredson’s incredibly visually rich spy drama. Set in England during the Cold War, the movie focuses on efforts to identify a mole rumored to exist at the head of the ‘Circus’ (The circus being the spy organization at the center of the movie). Rather than reviewing the film, I want to focus on the difference between directors who try to show a story in a general or certain light, versus those who are clearly trying to elicit a very particular response from their audience.

Let’s talk about the opening and the introduction of important narrative elements in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I’m fascinated by this idea (as David Fincher once also pointed out) of the beginning of a movie being a place where a director can pretty much get away with anything at all, no matter how absurd it is, (See Under the Skin for reference), and simultaneously acclimatize the audience to different elements they’re going to keep using throughout the film. Two things really stand out to me, with this in mind, within the first few minutes of the movie. First, dialogue or monologue continues well into the next scene, forcing you to continue following the thread of a meaningful and usually wandering conversation while the film’s actual story is moving on without you. There is this constant imperative that you have to keep up with what’s going on, and I think the director does a really effective job at convincing us, just through visuals, that it is actually possible to keep pace, if only you’d pay a little closer attention and be a little lighter on your feet. Of course, it’s not true, but it’s very believable.

The second treat you get right at the beginning is a very quick succession of reveals that challenge your perception of what’s going on. As soon as Control mentions Budapest, we see a still aerial shot of the city, the camera pans out to show that the shot is actually being taken from inside the hallway of some structure, almost immediately following the sound of two jets flying in toward the camera, and finally revealing a group of school children laughing in this hall. So we have, at first, the still image of a city, a very typical establishing shot, but the imagery is rich enough that you can easily feel comfortable watching it. Very soon we find out that this isn’t a still image of the city, but that the camera is both capable of moving to show you something new, and what’s more, that it has some specific orientation in space. You are not simply looking at the city below; all of a sudden, where you are when you’re observing becomes important, and you’re not alone either, and the city is by no means stagnant and peaceful.

Here is the aerial shot near the opening of the story:

I feel as though this is done to teach the audience something about how they have to watch the film, and that lesson is to question your own preconceived notions, to look closer, and if you do these things you’ll be able to see more of what’s going on. This is true to an extent but to a more important extent, it’s the director’s way of introducing the most important lie of the movie: that you, junior spy, can solve the mystery with Smiley, possibly even before him.

This illusion is maintained throughout the film by introducing a dense atmosphere of visual mysteries, all revealed in quick succession. By the time you’re given a clue to the meaning of what one image is, another mystery has already appeared, and by the time you can condense all the clues into a coherent message of what’s going on in the scene, one of the characters is about ready to wrap up whatever story or revelation they were talking about, and the scene is just closing in time for you to realize that you’re still miles behind every character in the story.

Take, for instance, the scene where Smiley is going to meet with Peter and Oliver about Witchcraft. The scene truly starts with Smiley brooding over a recording of a voice saying, “Everything the Circus thinks is gold is shit.” We don’t know the relevance of this phrase or why it’s followed by him walking through a building with, for the first time, what appears to be his own personal bodyguard. Before we can even think to speculate on why he feels, rather suddenly, the need for protection, and what he’s doing in a building stocked with chandeliers, the bodyguard suddenly stops in the middle of a room while Smiley apparently not noticing, continues on without him. “Why is there a bodyguard here?” Is immediately followed by the question, “Why has he stopped?” Their conversation begins (essentially) with “There is a house…” The mysteries start compounding. We now know that this is a secret meeting, and that it somehow revolves around ‘Witchcraft’, but there are subtle mysteries everywhere, like the deep hole offset from Peter McNeil O’Connor’s face as he responds. Is it a bullet hole? Just a leftover from shoddy construction? Why is it in the frame and isolated as the only other visual stimulus in this apparently very risky meeting place? Who is it leaving the scene as Smiley enters? By the end of the scene, we have half answers for why the bodyguard came with Smiley and why he stopped. We have a full answer to why Smiley is there in the first place, and what it has to do with the statement “Everything the Circus thinks is gold is shit.” We only get this at the very end though, and we’re left even more taken aback than Peter and Oliver by the revelation, but it’s obvious once he says it where the revelation came from. We have to wait for Smiley to lay it out for us though, even as all the clues are right there in front of us, because there is so much going on in this world that we’re simply not familiar with.

In the scene where Peter picks up Toby, the introduction of every new visual is a question. Why is Peter waiting at the exit of the elevator without getting in? Where is he taking Toby? Why don’t they drive away right away once they’re in the car? Why are there others waiting to get in the car with the two of them? Why is Toby suddenly frightened by the appearance of Smiley? Why are they getting out in the middle of nowhere? Why does the car suddenly start driving slowly behind them? Why, after this, would the car cut to the side and drive away? Are they waiting for a plane? Will the plane hit them?

So many ‘why’s, so many questions! I think this is the real genius of this movie: the ability to create a mystery purely out of visuals. And this is not the kind of mystery where you’re just shown random objects and images; these images have a narrative; they are building a story outside of what’s going on verbally, and in many cases outside, even, of the choices the characters make. It’s like watching three stories unfold at the same time, all connected, but ultimately independent from one another.

What do you think? This might be the greatest example, in my opinion, of a director exercising perfect control over their audience. Everything is very careful and calculated specifically for it’s effect.

One more thing to note: everyone in the film is constantly being framed, quite literally – inside of boxes, behind glass – enough so you can see them distinctly, isolated, but never get truly close.

Jordan Rideout, Film writer at Seroword

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  1. Love the way you analyze movies rather than always reviewing them. It’s totally true though. A huge stonking like from me. Check out my retro cinema review of Mad Max, I’d love it if you could leave a like and let me know what you think…

  2. I loved this film when it came out in 2011 and I’ve always felt it never got the appreciation it deserved from audiences. I’m glad to read this article knowing there is appreciation for this film, but also you provided detail and evidence to a theme I’ve never considered with the film. Great read!

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