January 25, 2012

Old war

There is no dourness quite like Cold War dourness: in Tomas Alfredson's new, grainy remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, early 70s London is more crepuscular – dim interiors, dust and cigarette smoke, shots so murky the camera lens could have been the bottom of a fish tank – than even Eastern Bloc Budapest, which seems exotic and glamorous (as does Istanbul in a flashback, pictured, which constitutes the liveliest, brightest, most sensuous part of the film). This evocation of a gloomy, claustrophobic, constrained mood and period is one of the triumphs of Alfredson and his team (DOP Hoyte Van Hoytema, production designer Maria Djurkovic), as the spy business here is less about globetrotting excitement and technology-assisted breakthroughs (every Mission:Impossible film, the new Homeland series) than bureaucratic, hyper-paranoid insularity, making a trip to retrieve a file from upstairs as terrifying as a stop at Checkpoint Charlie in any other Cold War drama. This control of mood impresses and so does the elegant compression of the book and/or 1970s TV mini-series into short, important exchanges and quick glances (example: the bee moment in the car, shot from the back, says much about Smiley’s poise, his character), yet this is essentially a work of atmosphere first and story second, with its atmosphere so pungent that you might even wonder if your weird longing for the lost world it conjures up is a version of what post-1989 Germans call Ostalgie.