George Smiley (Gary Oldman) wins the battle of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) in part by being the most recessive, closed-off man among a raft of closed-off people. Self-abnegation is a desirable quality in a John le Carré master spy, for the invisible war of intelligence requires invisible soldiers.
Alfredson emphasizes this by the way his camera regards the players. Smiley is often, tellingly, viewed from behind, just a well-groomed haircut inclining toward whoever’s speaking to him at the time. His face is absent; from the audience’s perspective, the people who interact with Smiley are reacting to the bare gestures of a silhouette.
Smiley isn’t the only character given this treatment. When captured agent Jim Prideaux’s (Mark Strong) honor and sanity depend on closing himself off to his Soviet interrogators, we’re denied a glimpse of his face. Meanwhile, the horror that’s displayed to him is also clearly displayed to us.
You can’t sneak up on a shadow. When Smiley finds disavowed field agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) hiding out in his home, Tarr can only see him from behind. Smiley need not even turn around to know not only that someone’s in his house, but exactly who it is.
By the time of Tinker Tailor’s events, circa 1974, Smiley to our knowledge has only lost the spy game once, when he failed to convince a high-level Soviet infiltrator to defect. That agent became Karla, chief spymaster of Moscow Centre, the bête noire of every MI5 operative. Smiley only discloses this failure when he’s drunk and at his weakest, and in doing so he mimes the conversation he had with Karla twenty years earlier. He’s a silhouette addressing an invisible man, bested by an agent who proved more closed — more spectral — than himself.
Very few of the other chessmen on the board can see Smiley, but by contrast, all of them can see each other. It’s worth noting, as Alfredson’s visual grammar becomes clear, how often the target of surveillance seems able to see his or her stalker.
The brutish Soviet agent Boris and his would-be defector wife Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), spied upon by Tarr:
The repatriated Prideaux, in his new identity as a teacher, and lonely schoolboy Bill Roach (William Haddock):
Roach and Prideaux spotting Smiley from the football pitch, as Smiley observes them …
… again, without looking in their direction:
The captive Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), as the betrayed Prideaux sights in on him.
This last encounter is prefigured/paralleled by the exchange of glances between Haydon and Prideaux at the Circus Christmas party, which melt from fond to perplexed to subtly horrified. It’s a master class in both acting, by Firth and Strong, and editing, by Dino Jonsäter.
In a film about covert operatives, this obscurement of identity and thought process serves Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy well. But amid all the crippled consciences and frozen angst of Smiley’s massive Circus, I love this cheerful little guy the best:
(For those deeply interested in the film and its subtleties, I can’t recommend this David Bordwell essay enough.)