Remember PRIMER, the time travel movie that made no sense unless you watched it at least twice? Even when you watched it the first time, however, the disorientation was as pleasant as "getting it" -- you were caught up in the characters' confusion. But if you've never read the book, a first viewing of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is nearly impenetrable, especially on home video. And when I say "nearly impenetrable," I don't mean that you won't get most of it; you will. But you won't -- you can't -- get all of it. And I'm torn about whether that matters.
Sometimes -- often -- it's as simple as catching someone's name. Movies are usually very redundant, and if you're like me you often wish they were less so -- *we get it* -- but TINKER TAILOR is cut past the quick.
An example: In the credits sequence, Control (Hurt) and George Smiley (Oldman), having just lost their jobs with British intelligence, are walking out of the building for the last time. They silently pass three employees who will be important later in the story, played by Burke, Graham and Cumberbatch -- the latter, being a name on the poster and sporting a blond bob, you definitely notice.
A few scenes later we meet Oliver Lacon (McBurney), a government official who has administrative authority over the intelligence division, as he spars with Percy Alleline (Jones) and Roy Bland (Hinds), who we've previously met. But in any given scene, the characters name might or might not be spoken, and almost never both names in sequence, so already at this point you're barely treading water, complicated by the fact that they're talking about people who you may or may not have already met, and even if you did, the name might not have registered.
And then after Lacon's first scene, a blond man in an orange coat walks into a phonebox. His face is almost entirely obscured, and his voice is slightly altered for phone effect. He calls Lacon, says his name is Ricky Tarr, and asks for Peter Guillam. If you paused the movie at this point and asked a viewer what was just said, maybe 50 percent would be able to tell you -- this is why movies are redundant, so these things sink in -- but fine, it was said.
Cut to Cumberbatch standing on London streets in a suit. Is this the same face-obscured blond man we just saw, having made a secret call to a government official after hours and now showing up at work? He walks into the building with Bill Haydon (Firth), and Cumberbatch's character's name is never given despite their 12-line conversation and the other colleagues' names they drop. Then we cut to Cumberbatch in his office; the phone rings, he answers, a beat, he says "Peter Guillam," and then gets a stricken look on his face. Assuming that you're able to connect this "Peter Guillam" to its one previous utterance in the phonebox scene, you're still not sure -- did Cumberbatch hear someone on the phone during that beat that he identified as Peter, or is he answered the phone and giving his own name as Peter? Cut to Smiley watching TV and hearing a knock on his door; cut to Smiley in the back of a car, pan to see that it's driven by Cumberbatch, in a conversation where his name is not mentioned; cut to a meeting with Smiley and Lacon (but not Cumberbatch) about Ricky Tarr (who I believe get his name dropped here, again his first mention since the phonebox conversation, if you remembered it). But, whew, Smiley indicates that Cumberbatch is definitely named Peter. And 30 minutes later we meet Ricky Tarr again, who's played by the blond Tom Hardy and was definitely the guy in the phone booth.
But that's what watching this movie is like. I saw the blu-ray on a 27" flat panel, which is the best I could do since it never played theatrically in the town of 50,000 where I do my movie-watching, and I was frequently baffled. Some shots are the kind of grace notes you're happy to snag on rewatch (Smiley looking at a painting at the end of the credits), but other stuff that's more text than subtext gets swept away.
Watching it again -- same blu-ray, same TV -- I loved it, or at least I loved following it. Once you know all the characters' names and face, it's a marvel of screenplay structure and economy, sometimes hobbled by directorial choices that lead to confusion like the above. (Between this and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, I'm not totally sold on Alfredson.)
That said, even once I got it, I'm not sure I got it. TINKER TAILOR is a solid fairplay mystery, with smart people doing their best work despite being hobbled, like all of us, by emotion. (Although, again, I think the opacity in the first viewing saps that fair play, and because it's a mystery it can be a lesser first-time viewing experience than movies like PRIMER or ever MULHOLLAND DR and A.I., which also require multiple viewings to fully savor.) But there's a centerpiece scene where Smiley recounts meeting his KGB opponent, Karla, whom he tried to compel to defect through confession, saying that their respective factions are equally worthless, tarnished sides of the same coin. Alfredson puts the camera right up in Oldman's face, and Oldman turns on the high beams as much as he ever does for Smiley, cuing you to care what Smiley says, but we're given no reason to sympathize with Smiley's malaise. We see that Karla's team is made up of torturers, murderers of women, and domestic abusers, whereas the Brits are merely dissolute careerists. The movie makes no equivalence about their respective value, or evil; Karla's clearly worse. (When we meet the mole Smiley's pursued, he says switching teams was "an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one; the West's so ugly," and that's as much as geophilosophies get discussed.) We're so hungry for a peek into Smiley's uncensored head, but what he's seen doesn't match what we're shown.