Directed by Thomas Alfredson, who previously made Let The Right One In, the film is a 15/R, shot on film in 2.40:1. The film is 127 minutes long.
It’s no surprise to see the film’s most intimate, emotional scene starts out as far removed from its characters as any other. After an hour and eleven minutes of spying, looking, reading and talking, George Smiley (Oldman) seems to have reached a peak, and with young aide Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), he takes the night off from working out who the mole at the top of the Circus is, who is giving their secrets to the Kremlin, for a spot of smoking and drinking. And most importantly of all, almost connecting to the smallest thread of humanity and emotion left.
Smiley is about to begin a monologue at this point, in which he remembers the one time he was face-to-face with Karla, the Kremlin’s best agent, and no matter what Smiley would say, he couldn’t crack him. The mind-games at hand in that scenario clearly still playing with Smiley’s head, running through it until he can find a rhyme and reason and use for dealing with the type of person Karla is. At the same time, it delves into his relationship with his estranged wife, Ann, who, for all her infidelities, is a big part of Smiley’s life. He may be detached to the events in the film, to the humans he interacts with, but there is little to no doubt that his wife is the very core of Smiley.
Allowing Cumberbatch’s Guillam to be a sounding board for his most intimate thoughts, Smiley’s almost-openness is refreshing, without ever being false to the character. Everything he says is veiled from honest truth, covered in the importance of the situation they’re dealing with, a spy talking about his wife by talking about an interrogation.
The film’s colour palette, brown, is prevalent in this scene. Drenched in the grainy, grimy look of the 70′s, a dark looking night, with well placed lights to add atmosphere to the scene, and the camera pulled back, allowing the space to be exposed, and the audience to see everything, without really seeing the characters, as it were.
Cleverly set up in the scene, the empty chair before Smiley, later being where one of the angles hits, embodies the left of the frame. Our two spies on the right side, the emptiness, the void, the mystery of who they are trying to find, stop, fight on the other.
As act two begins to close off, this monologue, the centre of the film, pushes the audience to Smiley’s side, after a lot of investigating, because for once we see there’s a human under the glasses. He may hide it very well indeed, but there’s someone there. Someone who feels, cares, understands. He’s not just this cold, camouflaged creature, disappearing into the crowd at any given time, there’s always something going on underneath, and for Smiley, Karla and Ann are what keeps him up at night. They are one and the same, intertwined, they are the emotional push for Smiley to get his job done. An emotional push that doesn’t ever cloud his vision, but makes his place in the world clearer. From this point on, Smiley isn’t just an enigma that overlooks everything, he becomes a true character.
To have the most audience-embracing moment happen so late into the film (although as close to the middle as a big Act Two scene like this can be) is pretty daring, and maybe that’s why the film is a memorable piece of work. We want to know about Smiley the entire time. He’s talked about, thought highly of by others, and does his job properly, but unlike most films, we don’t know who he is for the longest period of time. Until he lets Guillam, and as an extension, the audience, into his thoughts, if briefly. Another film might open with him talking to a shrink, or one spy discussing him with another, “Check out his records, this guy has a 99% success rate”, that kind of clichéd tripe, but Tinker Tailor withholds this information as much as it does with the A-story mole at the Circus. It keeps the audience guessing, invested, wondering when and if we’ll know this character.
But in the end, do we ever know Smiley?
No. Of course not. We have enough information to get by, but when the credits arrive, with this scene still lingering in our minds, he’s still a pair of glasses, a cold stair and a voice that becomes white noise to anyone not truly listening.
I could stare at this frame all day, examining the minor details, every intrinsic little piece of set-dressing. I could just look at the character placement, the use of lighting and colour. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, technically, has this in every scene. A rarity, a marvel, something gorgeous, and this One Eleven Eleven really does have a lot more than a quick glance could suggest.