►The Friday Flick
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Premiering at the 68th Venice International Film Festival around two weeks prior to general release, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was greeted almost instantly with unanimous critical acclaim. Cries of sophistication, intelligence, and an astounding, absorbing experience were bandied around various film institutions; as of this writing, Tinker holds a 97% aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes after thirty five reviews. Just one of those has been negative, which only begs the question: why?
The film revolves around the British secret service in the 1970s; more specifically, the attempts of a forcibly retired spy, one George Smiley (Gary Oldman), to uncover a mole within the organisation, who has been feeding information to the Russians. Thus commences a twisted, vicious web of lies, deceit and corruption; with every other character a suspect, Smiley’s hunt for the perpetrator brings him into conflict with almost the entire supporting cast.
And what a stellar cast that is. Oldman is supported by everyone from John Hurt to Colin Firth in an absolutely outstanding A-List set of actors; a line-up complemented superbly by up-and-coming stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy (the latter you may recognise from last year’s Inception and in next year’s Batman flick, The Dark Knight Rises). The performances are all immeasurably British, and really help to capture the feel of Cold-War era England.
Such an atmosphere is furthered still by Alfredson’s stellar direction. Tinker carries style by the barrelful, with murky greys, greens and browns dousing the rain-filled milieu; in essence, it’s everything a typical Brit might imagine when conjuring up images of their homeland. And it only serves to reflect the ambience of the film in general; in a world where no one can be trusted, full of lies and misery, the mise-en-scene of Alfredson’s efforts is a directorial marvel.
It’s a huge shame, then, that Tinker’s strengths end here.
Indeed, what’s clear from Alfredson’s interpretation is that Tinker Tailor was originally adapted as a seven part television series for a reason. All credit to John Le Carré for such an intricately woven web of a tale, but the means to an end that Tinker relies on for its sucker punch are woefully underplayed in Peter Straughan’s subpar script. Should you manage to follow its elaborate, jarring storyboard to the last detail, and correctly assume the identity of the mole, there’s little chance you’ll care. Tinker tries to be complex and ends up convoluted.
Much of this is down to Alfredson failing to allow the plot to develop at a natural pace; much of the film’s opening scenes belong solely to Smiley, yet instead of exposition to the story we’re given montages of his character. This of course allows for development of the protagonist, personifying the film to such an end, but where a plot as complex as that of Le Carré’s is concerned, crammed into a meagre 127 minute screenplay, it might be assumed that more focus should be given on expanding the story. Character development is intrinsic, yes, but Alfredson captures it throughout the film anyway. The slow starting pace of a rushed plot hinders Tinker; indeed, it is precisely this which gives it such a convoluted feel.
In Alfredson’s desire to illuminate such an intelligent plot in little over two hours’ runtime, he manages to almost completely alienate the audience, providing little to engage with. Multiple narrative threads dangle loosely as the credits roll, helped in no manner by yet another montage that seemingly wishes to only give every character, no matter how minor, another couple of seconds of screentime, offering few tied knots.
This hectic wish to complicate things further simply alienates the antagonists; too little exposure is given to the suspects and secondary characters, to the end that when the reveal happens, you’ll be left wondering why you wanted to know in the first place. Tinker boasts style, sophistication and a little substance, but ultimately ends up disengaging, unabsorbing and emotionally defunct.
If you’ve ever played the PlayStation classic Driver, then the opening sequence of Drive should look inherently familiar. It’s a car chase the way car chases should be done; it’s not over the top, it’s exquisitely directed, and carries the cool, collected ambience of John Tanner’s effortless vigilantism. It’s an exceptional introduction to an exceptional film; one that oozes style and charm whilst blending an amalgam of genre conventions into what can only be termed an ‘arthouse blockbuster’.
Following the story of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway vehicle for local crooks, Drive immediately introduces its protagonist’s proficiency behind the wheel through a precise and skilful chase sequence - one that sees the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling) help a pair of burglars escape a helicopter pursuit. It’s an effective introduction, and immediately sets the tone of the film through the distinguished camerawork - Gosling enjoys plenty of low angles to establish his control of the situation - and beautifully executed lighting, in the neon nightscapes of Los Angeles.
Such landscapes, emphasised through the scenic panning shots of the opening titles, indicate a neo-noir vibe to Drive that’s mixed to great effect with an ensemble of other genre conventions. At times it drifts towards something of a 70s slant, reminiscent of the Scorsese great Taxi Driver (1976), whilst the hot pink, cursive titles and lavish use of gore suggest something of a Tarantino-esque grindhouse format. Whilst these features are not so unique when each is presented alone, the mesh of all leads to something quite untypical - so it’s with great credit to director Nicolas Refn that it’s executed so beautifully.
Bursting with symbolic flair, Refn’s vision is unique; it’s a slower-paced effort, but one that manages to capture its audience with gracious ease. Unlike Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the slow, methodical storyboarding here works to great effect, absorbing the audience into the melancholy mind of The Driver, as his true persona is laid bare.
In many ways, however, Drive is deceptive; not least in its titular form - at just four points in the film does Gosling sit behind the wheel for any extended period of time. Indeed, following the opening sequence, Drive takes rather more of a romantic turn, through the introduction of neighbour Irene and her son Benicio in our protagonist’s life. Thus follows a sepia-doused montage of Gosling seemingly playing the natural doting father to Benicio, whose own paternal influence lies incarcerated for an unknown crime. While seemingly out of place in terms of what we’re shown beforehand, these nostalgic and uplifting moments give Drive a well-placed injection of heart and soul.
But of course, as must inevitably happen, Benicio’s father, Standard (even Irene asks at one point, “where’s the deluxe version?”), shows up again - released from prison, and carrying baggage, in the form of a hefty debt of protection money. It’s not long before Irene and Benicio are threatened, and so in steps The Driver to help. Matters soon become awry after a fatal pawn shop robbery, and soon we’re knee deep in a web of treachery, lies and deceit. It’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s often enough unpredictable that it’s suitable for purpose. Sadly, the finale bows to storytelling convention maybe a little too heavily, but such a slight flaw can easily be overlooked for all that’s come before it.
Gosling himself is superb; forever emblazoned with that unique vacant determinism, his character is just as absorbing as the film. He’s a modern day Travis Bickle in many ways, if slightly more ambitious behind the wheel. Just like Travis, the unnamed Driver’s character has flaws; he is effortlessly awkward, and yet carries a certain charm and nervous smile that so brilliantly mask his psychopathic tendencies that the Driver’s acts of violence feel as though they are a twist in and as of themselves. The character’s wild extremes suggest something of a hyper reality about him; the representation of each of us, of our highs and our lows, drawn out and plastered onto a screen, in the form of this beautifully menacing, reserved and yet likeable Driver.
It’s a stunning but shattering lecture in storytelling from Refn; his characters all with an impetus to an end that so define their status. Carey Mulligan delights as the soft-spoken, kind-hearted and motherly Irene; again, a character with flaws - just look at her choice of husband - but one who you can’t help but sympathise for. Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman lie opposite our convoluted heroes, both excelling in their twisted nature; Perlman the self-serving, belligerent mobster, and Brooks the coldly apologetic investor. At times one might even sympathise for Brooks’ actions, though as the film progresses and his true character is revealed, it is not sympathy Refn draws on; merely a sheer contempt for his deeds. The role reversal is implemented perfectly, in stellar efforts from both screenwriter Hossein Amini and Brooks himself.
A unique, beautiful vision, executed with a suitably twisted grace, Drive is methodical, yet for the most part unpredictable - a stirring achievement from director Refn. Definitely one of the greats of the 21st Century - improbable sequel pending, you won’t see another film like it.
(Image: IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1489419520/tt1340800)
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