The Art of Spying

As Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of the few films to depict the less glamorous lifestyle of a secret agent, I consider how contemporary cinema presents spies and analyse the directorial influence Tomas Alfredson has on his espionage thriller.

Spying, or espionage, is the act of obtaining information surreptitiously. In its most common form, as a military operation where intelligence about one nation is collected covertly for the benefit of another, this technique has been used by many countries in conflicts throughout history. Real life accounts and fictional literature created narrative conventions that have proved fruitful for the film industry, resulting in the formation of a sub-genre of its own.

James Bond, Ethan Hunt and Jason Bourne have become household names. From fast paced action sequences highlighting their expertise in killing enemies, resourcefully finding a weapon in anything, to countless one night stands, often the result of charming pick up lines; these three characters and their films romanticise the occupation and glamorise the lifestyle of the secret agent. With presentations of an aspirational career and lifestyle it isn’t surprising that children might be so keen to achieve double-o status. However, there is nothing covert about how these fictional agents operate, and though they are undoubtedly entertaining, the result is an unrealistic representation of the profession.

Tinker Tailor’s protagonist George Smiley is a different, more convincing character. He is a former British spy brought back from retirement to uncover the identity of a Soviet mole at the top of MI6. His cold stare offers a glimpse into an unforgettable past and latent ability to act quickly and fight with initiative, similar to the glamorised spy, though his restrained lifestyle has little similarity. There are no flings, fast cars or firearms. Instead, Smiley’s calm, collected approach to life is the result of precaution and paranoia. His daily rituals reflect the fear of a nation immersed in Cold War suspicion. Throughout his investigation he rarely utters a word; just sits in silence – calculating, listening, spying. He constantly checks over his shoulder, avoids the use of telephones for fear that they have been bugged and cannot leave the house without placing a matchstick in the doorframe. This isn’t the high octane cat and mouse narrative typified by the spy genre, but a slow burning game of deduction.

Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, who rose to fame through his vampire romance Let The Right One In, is tasked with adapting John Le Carré’s legendary novel. He brings his individual directorial style and has assembled an all-star British cast, but it’s his partnership with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema that proves the most beneficial for this espionage thriller.

Hoyte reveals “Tomas is very open to fully incorporate film language to its fullest extent. I want the cinematography to play a big role in how you experience the subject matter in an atmospheric level. To give strength to the film and make you really feel what it might have been like in their situation. Tomas didn’t want to do a modern spy movie; he wanted to create a world of its own.”

A visual motif runs through Let The Right One In at the forefront of which is Hoytema’s stylised cinematography. He made use of geometric shapes and converging lines, a compositional technique that, when used effectively, draws the viewer’s eye towards the subject of the image. For Tinker, Tailor Hoytema recycles this technique and with the addition of a shallow depth of field he blurs the foreground and background; isolating the characters within the frame. This approach provides anchorage to the narrative, at the centre of which are a group of characters who keep their cards close to their chest and can trust no one.

This technique is best exemplified in the scene, midway through the narrative, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam is gathering information in a restricted library. A long shot from side on to each of the bookcase creates a grid-like aesthetic. This compositional tool, a frame within the frame, draws the viewer’s eye onto Guillam in his individual cell. This highlights his covert operation, the empty squares that surround him add to the risk of him getting caught. Similarly, the sequence, shown through flashbacks, where Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr recounts his time spying in Istanbul revisits these framing techniques. The camera is positioned on one building looking into an apartment opposite. A wide shot allows the audience to see into each window and buildings shape direct attention towards, watching the action unfold within a comic book aesthetic. These moments, though brief, further highlight the solitary and independent lifestyle of a secret agent. In Casino Royale the poker scenes are as snail-paced as Tinker Tailor and the black and white aesthetic of the opening sequence infer a similarly artistically stylised espionage film, yet the filmmaker still clings on to traditional action sequences.

Aided by the editorial team, lead by Dino Janoster, who was also involved with developing the unique style for Let The Right One In, another key feature of Hoytema’s cinematography is his choice of shots. Long shots that observe a large majority of a scene and allowing a number of characters to operate in the same space, are juxtaposed against extreme close ups that focus in on every small detail. These lingering shots, typically in the scenes within the soundproofed interview room, focus on those being talked to, rather than those doing the talking. They show the reaction of the accused, searching for any tell-tale sign or clue to solve the mystery. Where Hollywood relies on action to create tension, typified by the short jump cuts and dizzying camera-shake of a Bourne action sequence, Tinker Tailor detracts from the conventional; amplifying the tension to that of a high stakes poker game.

Throughout Smiley’s investigation the camera remains placed in the shadows, looking through windows and peering around corners. The voyeuristic quality of the cinematography strengthens the enigmatic atmosphere. Alfredson places the audience as spies, observing every movement and overhearing every piece of dialogue. And a slow paced narrative allows the audience time to question every decision, accuse every suspect and ultimately conduct their own investigation.

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