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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Directed by Tomas Alfredson (2011)

One question you might ask about a new feature film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is what relevance the machinations of the Cold War has for today? What this film seems to be asking, though, is what relevance the Cold War had when it was being fought.

The participants in the ‘circus’, as they call it, are playing a game in which they are expert at the rules but fuzzy about not only how they know they have won but what the prize might be. One of them gropes around for a good reason for choosing the side he has and concludes that the other side has just got “so ugly”.

Aesthetics is a better reason for going to war than some, but it’s still not good.

It’s as if everyone has forgotten what they’re fighting for but must somehow carry on. A kind of blind loyalty. And if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about anything it’s about loyalty. The loyalty of a failed marriage. Staying together for the children. Or the dog. Or something.

This is a slow, languid picture, spiced with the occasional dash of violence to suggest there is, after all, something real outside the game.

Its production values, like its moral values, are quintessentially British, evoking the 1960s quite magically and depending on good, restrained acting for the rest. Gary Oldman as George Smiley brilliantly conveys a character who knows the game inside out but is fairly hopeless when he steps into real life. And there is no joy in winning. No winning really. Just modulations of despair.

On the wall of Smiley’s house there’s what appears to be a small Rothko that dances in and out of shot. It has its part to play in the plot, as it turns out, but the way Smiley stares at it, in such puzzlement, it could stand for much more. A clue, in some unknown language, that there might be something better.

And there was something better than the Cold War, a war that for decades gripped the world in fear - and for what?

September 30, 2011

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