Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The spies in Tomas Alfredson’s artfully crafted adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy toil away in mundane offices. Most of what they type and read is a mystery. When suspicions of a mole arise, former spy George Smiley is called in as suddenly as he was forced to retire. Throughout the film, one wonders not only about the mole’s identity but about where these spies’ work begins and their emotional lives end.

Though hours shorter than the 1979 BBC adaptation, this version takes its time. The movie, like the book, often forces the audience to read between the lines. Its color scheme is as bleak as the story’s Cold War setting, and the camera almost nostalgically observes the drudgery of sorting through physical files and writing with pen and paper. The soundtrack and slower pacing mimic movies of the 1970s, but the cinematography and editing are simultaneously inventive and retro.

This very believable world is peopled with chilly characters, played by an excellent array of familiar actors. Each is tinged with suspicion and a hint (or more) of amorality. Beneath even the more demonstrative personalities lie opaque motivations. John Hurt plays the paranoid and cantankerous Control, head of the Circus (the ring of top spies). Toby Jones does well as Percy Alleline, an ambitious spy who gets in a power struggle with Control. Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian working for England, is played convincingly by David Dencik, and Colin Firth perfectly fits the charming Roy Bland.

Mark Strong’s portrayal of a haunted “Scalphunter” is especially poignant, as is Tom Hardy’s disturbed Ricky Tarr. Also memorable are Simon McBurney as the bureaucratic but shrewd British undersecretary and Benedict Cumberbatch, touching as Smiley’s young assistant Peter Guillam. Gary Oldman plays our unlikely hero, Smiley. For the first half of the film, he hardly says anything. His dull and humble appearance is impossible to read. But his low voice contains a glimmer of cunning. Gradually Smiley’s skills of perception and methodical tactics show results. While unassuming and vulnerable, Smiley is also unnaturally calm, and aware of when to use either sympathy or implacability to get the intelligence he needs.

A few common phrases (such as “bad apple,” and “trust no one”) pepper the script, but clich├ęs are extremely rare. Don’t expect these characters to explain why they sacrifice their relationships and moral codes for a tedious job that is both dangerous and thankless. Some likely appreciate the sordid fruits of their labor; others might relish the gathering of information. The older ones hang onto past glories of World War II. Some may not know.

The plot jumps between characters and time periods. It is not always clear who is looking for what and why. Yet this confusion adds to the complexity that makes up the world of spies and secrets. The story is confusing, but the sense of alienation that lurks behind the Circus’s jokes and jaunty boys’ club mentality is all too certain.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Part 2, Fincher Version

As far as I was concerned, my ticket to David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was paid for as soon as the opening credits rolled. After an awkward cold open in which two old men share one line of dialog, Trent Reznor and Karen O’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song breaks the quiet mood. While Karen screams about those Scandinavians “from the land of ice and snow,” silvery images of breaking faces, bleeding technology, unfurling flowers, fire, and who knows what else rip across the screen.

Based on the first book in the Swedish Stieg Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the former head of the grand Vanger enterprises, lures Blomkvist to a small town on an island in order to solve the mystery of his long lost niece. Because she disappeared during a family reunion, at a time when an accident blocked off access to the island, Vanger is convinced a relative murdered her. Meanwhile, the audience also follows Salander, a punkish young woman who is under the care of the state for violent behavior. We witness her abuse, her ruthless, methodical reaction to said abuse, and her genius with a computer.

The film manages to overcome one of my biggest pet peeves: characters in a foreign country speak English with a foreign accent. (Why bother? They’re supposed to be speaking another language anyway. The whole world doesn’t revolve around English.) The mostly British and American cast tend to speak with a slight Swedish lilt. Another problem with the movie is a certain violent scene which lingers on the perpetrator’s sadism, seemingly in order to justify retaliation.

Reznor and Atticus Ross’s ambient soundtrack is sometimes self-conscious, as are the sharp editing and Jeff Cronenweth’s striking cinematography. However, this approach works: it infuses the film with suspense, conveys the book’s intensity, and turns moments which could have been difficult to translate from the page into resonant scenes.

Steven Zaillian’s script has been very well edited, weaving subtle themes about greed, victimization, and xenophobia. In general, the few changes from the book clarify the plot. The screenplay is a surprisingly successful balance of character development, dramatic tension, and satisfying solutions.

Most of the characterizations are intriguing and true to their source. Craig’s believable and sympathetic Blomkvist might be an improvement on the original. Mara depicts the wildly popular Salander’s mixture of detachment, calculation, viciousness, and vulnerability. Plummer’s friendly but cunning Vanger is especially close to Larsson’s description. Other Vanger relatives are played by Stellen Skarsgaard (excellent as Henrik’s amiable nephew), an appropriately cold Geraldine James, and a sensitive Joely Richardson.

Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 Swedish adaptation of the same novel had the disadvantage of a shorter length (it was cut down from a miniseries) and a smaller budget (I assume). The two stars Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace were fantastic, but the series lacked imagination. Overall Fincher’s version better captures the feel of the book, and in some cases even improves upon it. I would love to see the sequels to this beautifully shot, gripping adaptation.