Top Ten of 2011, #9: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson

I’ve been waiting for the past several years to see how director Tomas Alfredson would follow up his phenomenal Let the Right One In, so I was ecstatic when I found out it was to be a cerebral thriller with such a strong British cast.  And Gary Oldman reinterpreting a role made famous by the late Sir Alec Guinness definitely upped the fascination factor.  Luckily, Tinker Tailor completely delivers on the two elements I was most interested curious about– Oldman totally makes the role, something quite different from the parts he’s had over the last decade or two, his own; and Alfredson delivers an extremely intelligent adaptation of le Carre’s novel that never dumbs itself down, but instead constantly makes the audience play catch-up with it, something all too rare in contemporary thrillers that usually pander to a perceived witless, lowest-common denominator audience.

In fact, Tinker plays its cards so close to the vest that often times we’re not sure what’s happening, from the plot to smaller details like the nature of George Smiley’s home life.  But we’re given what we need when we need it, and the rest of the time we’re kept in the dark in much the way most of MI6’s agents constantly are.  It’s refreshing that Alfredson would risk alienating a mainstream audience who needs all of the answers constantly spoon-fed to it the entire running time, and it’s likely the reason Tinker Tailor didn’t scare up larger box office returns.  Instead, it’s the kind of film that benefits from re-watching and will likely find more and more audience favor as time goes by; and yet it still did well enough to merit production of a now-rumored sequel.  With four more le Carre books starring George Smiley, and three additional novels he makes appearances in, there’s certainly room to grow Tinker Tailor into a franchise if the creative team wants to pursue it.

The plot has Oldman’s Smiley retiring from MI6, commonly referred to in-house as “the Circus.”  Shortly thereafter, Control, played by John Hurt, dies of natural causes, leaving behind an investigation of what he believes to be a Soviet mole in their infrastructure.  About the same time, one of their field agents, Jim Prideuax, played by Mark Strong, has a mission compromised, is possibly fatally shot, and disappears.  Smiley begins to secretly take over Control’s investigation with the assistance of a younger agent, Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, still on the inside of MI6.  There’s a particularly intense and expertly-directed scene where Guillam has to steal some secret documents from the MI6 library and navigate a system where any baggage or briefcases must be checked and put into security.  While all of this is going on, another field agent, Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy, shows up at Smiley’s house after having been branded a traitor, the story of his own compromised mission linked to information that may help reveal the identity of the mole.  The title of both novel and film comes from the code names Control has assigned to the four agents he believes may be the mole, agents played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik.

Of course the entire cast in fantastic, but some of the more well-known actors like Firth and Hinds don’t get a lot of screen time.  For me the stand-outs were Dencik and Cumberbatch.  Dencik has a great scene filmed on a landing strip with a small airplane that reveals the depths of fear and paranoia going on under the surface.  And Cumberbatch’s Guillam is a nice counterpoint to Smiley while working alongside him.  He’s younger, a bit more green, and more emotionally vulnerable and accessible as a character than Smiley.  He helps ground the film and broaden its scope from what we get with Smiley, who plays his cards so close to his vest.  It’s a shame that neither Dencik or Cumberbatch picked up Oscar nominations this past year; their work certainly deserved it, much more than some of the other nominees, for example Jonah Hill in Moneyball.

Tinker Tailor is the kind of smart, intelligent thriller rarely produced these days, and something I personally have been hungering for.  Since Hollywood has dumbed-down so much of its output over the last decade, hopefully we’ll continue to see some of the excellent foreign directors with growing cache dip their toes into larger-budgeted genre films and produce movies that engage the brain along with the adrenaline glands.  And not only is Tinker Tailor whip-smart, but Alfredson is a very visually gifted director, and the cinematography, framing, and editing all work together to create a sharp, gorgeous package.

9/10

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Top Ten of 2011, #10: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, David Yates

The entire Harry Potter phenomenon is something that has truly deserved all of its successes.  The existence of the books are nothing short of a miracle, considering how J.K. Rowling wrote the first one while on social security and unemployed, a single mother in the throes of clinical depression contemplating suicide.  Unlike most young adult fiction, the Harry Potter books are extremely well-written and intelligent.  They don’t speak down to their readership, but rather invite it to rise and grow with the series.  They portray an enticing, magical world where every child has a place and an extended family at Hogwarts, where children are respected and valued and encouraged to embrace their destiny.  It’s no surprise than an entire generation of children has been given hope by the series, and learned to appreciate the joys of reading.

The films began with director Christopher Columbus, who did an adequate job on the first two creating a sense of magic and the wonders of discovery.  But the director of fare like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire has never been much for subtlety, and one of the signatures of his films appears to be the trite, phony, narcissistic grins of overly-precious Hollywood child stars.  Luckily for the series the three leads were cast so well, and all of them grew with the films into talented young actors.  Things really experienced a shift when Alfonso Cuaron took over for Prisoner of Azkaban and began treating it like something more than a shiny, happy child’s confection.  Then David Yates came on board with the fifth film and stuck through to the end becoming a central, governing voice along with screenwriter Steve Kloves.  Not only did Yates provide a great consistency during the run of the final half of the series, but he began with the adaptation that is easily the worst book in the series, the Order of the Phoenix.  The fifth novel is almost unreadable as Rowling seems to have lost the through-line with this installment, and most of the book is spent scrabbling around trying to find its voice, its purpose, and the ending for the series.  My personal theory is that the success of the film series really hit Rowling while she was working on it, and suddenly she was no longer writing only for herself or even for her enormous and still-growing readership, but for the Hollywood machine, and the pressures of not upsetting it created a lot of anxiety and self-questioning.  Luckily for her, she was back on track with the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but Phoenix is filled with a lot of meandering and stumbling, and reads like a collection of filler material by a writer trying to find her way through a first draft to the end.  Nevertheless, Yates took the material and did something rare– made an adaptation stronger than the source material.

So the weight on Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is enormous.  Not only does it finish up an unprecedented film series, one shot with the same young actors over the course of a decade as they matured, never replacing any of them, and one with a cinematic vision that became more honed and refined as the series continued, but it does justice to a literary phenomenon, and the end of the film series signals the close to a multi-media legacy featuring a who’s who of the British acting community.  The special effects, set design, make-up, and art direction continued to evolve and grow over the course of the series, always representing the best of its time, and by this last film has evolved into something truly special.  And in addition to all of the talent in front of and behind the camera, Deathly Hallows has the unenviable task of wrapping up plot detail after plot detail, of portraying moment after sacred moment in the endgame of a beloved literary benchmark.  Every moment of the film is an opportunity to stumble, but the film never does.  Under Yates’ confident leadership, Deathly Hallows hits every small bit out of the park and brings a satisfying close to an unwieldy eight-film adaptation.

Now, it’s likely that Deathly Hallows can’t really stand on it’s own.  I can’t imagine anyone who’s never read the Harry Potter books or seen the other films sitting in front of this one and having any idea of what’s going on or caring about the characters.  To that point, Deathly Hallows, Part 2 really can’t be appreciated as a stand-alone film.  But the manner it which it closes such a long and successful series is the kind of razor’s edge, miraculous balancing act that deserves acknowledgement and deep respect.  Forget the new “trilogy,” the Harry Potter film series is really the Star Wars of this generation, so powerful that its success has redefined the Hollywood blockbuster franchise, inflicting the irredeemable Twilight films on us with their mimicking marketing strategy right down to splitting the final book into two films, a move that was required to capture the full density of the final Potter book, but one that is nothing more than imitation and a blind money grab on the part of that other franchise’s vapid excrescence.

9/10

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