John le Carre’s bristling spy drama plays out as enigmatically as any movie that I have ever seen. It unspools with a clinical lack of drama and at a studied pace that makes it seem longer than its two hour runtime. I could decipher this much – That a reading of the book is not optional but almost essential to enjoy the various shades of the movie. As far as I know there can be two kind of mystery dramas – One, that lay out their cards to you and give you enough to unravel the mystery by yourself and the second kind which let you sit back and let the protagonist do the thinking. I am led to believe that TTSS is the latter kind because we are privy to only so much information about the teeming characters in this sprawling drama. There is not much scope for inferences and deductions because from the little we see everyone seems compromised and suspect.
If one reconciles oneself to this much, as I did after strenuously trying to stay on the hunt as an active participant before being shunted out by Alfredson, there is a lot to savour and enjoy. Firstly, there is the all star British cast at the top of their game. Considering the number of characters, only a few manage to stay on for more than a couple of minutes. Gary Oldman’s (as George Smiley) pensive, measured performance is masterful. It is astonishing how he has managed to summon upon himself the curse of old age so quickly. There are at least a thousand wrinkles on his face, even more adding to them when he is worried, as he is thrown into this quagmire of a mission to uncover the mole at the top of the Circus (The British Spy Agency). We should also keep in mind that he has only ordinary dialogues to say here and is not aided by the crowd pleasing, rousing dialogues of the Batman series or the overtly sinister scenery chewing kind in Leon. He is an old, retired, stolid man for whom life has become a wheezing struggle and this is depicted nicely in the scenes where he chugs through his daily chores somewhat like how he wades through the placid waters in a swimming pool. Mark Strong (as Jim Prideaux), Benedict Cumberbatch (as Guillam) and Tom Hardy (as Ricky Tarr) are the others who get some screen time and all of them play their characters with remarkable ease.
The second thing I liked about the movie was its elegiac quality. There is a nation’s national security at stake, as it usually is in spy dramas, but more than that there is also personal pride and honour at stake. For Smiley, there is redemption at stake after having to quit unceremoniously. Also these are not young, virile men engaging in a battle of wits but a solitary old man (pardon the pun, if any!) who is past his prime fighting it out.
The use of real world locations instead of sets gives the movie a sense of history and is very appealing. It also kills the little lurking feeling that this might play out like a Hollywood spy drama from the outset. Alfredson captures the lived in decadence of the espionage establishment, the Circus, to show us compellingly as to why the top brass may have been foolish enough to have fallen for Karla’s astute skulduggery. It is not just the mole but the naiveté of the entire establishment that is desperate for success and breakthrough of some kind.
Alfredson and his team of writers manage to invoke an over bearing sense of intrigue and drama without depicting any overtly. The team of writers do not gloat over the bigger revelations, as and when they arrive, and keep pressing with a sense of efficiency that perhaps diminishes the impact of the movie at certain key moments but also elevates it beyond the realms of melodrama. It is a choice that they consciously make as is evident from how the final act unravels and the mole is revealed – not to any reverberating Zimmer like score but a low key trill. What the movie lacks is a sense of urgency but this is more than compensated for by the various engaging strands of investigation. Such cinema and such understated denouements I have only seen in the likes of Coppola’s The Conversation and Fincher’s Zodiac.
As it is, TTSS is a movie that you can easily give up on, for it has everything going against it – too much information to process for a movie, too many characters to keep track of, intricate details that lead to further intricate details so much so I still do not have the complete web of connections in my head. In this respect it is somewhat like Altman’s Gosford Park with all the information overload. All I have remaining is a feeling of having had a sumptuous meal whose delicious aftertaste still lingers. It is a movie that cannot be grasped in one viewing for the above reasons, at least for me, and whose appeal lies far beyond the simple click with which the pieces of a puzzle fall into place.
For the second time this year, a Nordic filmmaker shows the way. I would not mind if they take over.