Fresh Start

01.03.12

Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Palácios de pena (Palaces of Pity), 2011, still from a color film, 59 minutes.


“FIRST LOOK,” an opportunity to see new films that lack or may never have distribution, is a mixed bag. On the adventurous, if surreal, side, there is Palácios de pena (Palaces of Pity), a Portuguese tidbit codirected by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, any summary of which is bound to impose more coherence than I suspect the filmmakers intended. A group of precocious adolescent female cousins cavort about, first in a huge sports stadium where their only audience is a grandmother in a wheelchair. The omniscient aspect of this figure is confirmed by a dream she has in which she is a judge in a medieval trial of two gay adolescent Muslim boys who are burned at the stake for avowing their love. Though far less explicit, an analogy of sorts is glimpsed in the relationship between the two female cousins, prompted by a “naughty” exchange that seems to turn them on. This occurs at the moment that one has finished lining with gasoline the palatial staircase that the other has just inherited from their grandmother. As she smiles at her cousin with a newfound rapport, she blithely tosses a match over her shoulder, igniting a conflagration that somehow both girls survive.

On the same program as this work is an affecting video documentary portrait of Japanese filmmaker Masao Adachi. Once a screenwriter for directors Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima before making his own revolutionary films, Adachi joined the militant Japanese Red Army in the early 1970s, then lived in exile for thirty years. Now in Japan, he is interviewed by Philippe Grandrieux and photographed in that director’s’ characteristically dusky, low-key visual style. The portrait begins with tenebrous images of Adachi pushing what may be his granddaughter on a swing that contrast with glaringly overlit shots of him amid nighttime Tokyo, as the earnestness and solitary nature of the man come through in a grave but mellow voice-over.

Grandrieux’s title, It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, alludes to a sentiment voiced by Adachi as he reflects on his past actions, desires, and regrets, and his commitment to a cause that failed—wondering if, in fact, change is only possible and survival only bearable through the cultivation of beauty, of art and living. Grandrieux intersperses excerpts from Adachi’s films—including The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971)—which are faded beyond recognition, as if reduced to serving as objective correlatives to the man’s present state. Adachi speaks of his desire to make a movie about the changes in Japan over the past fifty years, in order to show that there haven’t been any.

Chantal Akerman, Almayer’s Folly, 2011, still from a color film, 127 minutes.


Another highlight of the series is Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel of the same title. Like much of Conrad, it dramatizes the cultural tensions aroused by Western colonizers exploiting the natural resources of the East. Set in Malaysia, the narrative focuses on the title character’s failure at the business ventures that drove him there and the price he pays for his folly: the loss of his half-Malaysian daughter Nina, to the world from which he hoped to save her with Western education. When she returns to Malaysia and takes up with Dain, a dangerous native lover, Almayer’s only reason for living dissolves. The narrative is a flashback from the opening scene, itself an uncanny fusion of cultures, in which Dain mimes the voice of Dean Martin in a nightclub, surrounded by dancing native girls, as an ominous figure—Almayer’s loyal servant—slowly approaches the stage and stabs him to death.

Made on location, the film is drenched in atmosphere—the torpor of colonial jungle life with its oppressively hot days and sultry, sleepless nights at least as palpable as in Apocalypse Now (1979), and recalling Carol Reed’s adaptation of Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands (1952). Akerman’s eye for gifted cinematographers is once again evident here with Raymond Fromont, a veteran of documentaries. Shots of the jungle drip with humidity; those of the river that abuts it exude a sickly white from the punishing sun. The effect is preternatural, even if the tale and the telling lack sufficient weight. How Almayer lost the only thing that mattered to him is only barely conveyed, so that the final, nearly ten-minute-long take of his forlorn face is less stirring than it might have been. But then no one, perhaps not even Akerman, could match the final long take in her memorable Jeanne Dielman . . . (1974). Still, this is a must for any serious cineast.

Among the disappointments is Philippe Garrel’s Un été brûlant (literally A Scorching Summer, as translated on screen), which, though it chronicles the end of a marriage and the suicide of an artist, is so blandly constructed and acted as to render its title either unintentionally ironic or misleading. It opens as the protagonist (Louis Garrel) deliberately drives into a tree, a crash that lands him in the hospital and leads to his death. A friend narrates their relationship as a flashback recounts a summer in which the artist and his actress wife (Monica Bellucci) see their love die a slow death. Thanks to the limpness of the writing and directing, little of this is of consequence, and allusions to Godard’s great Contempt don’t help.

Promising titles include Elena, a new film by Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose The Return (2003) was one of the best films from Russia in at least two decades; Valérie Massadian’s Nana, which won Best First Feature at Locarno’s film festival; and Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle.

Tony Pipolo

“First Look,” curated by Dennis Lim, Rachael Rakes, and David Schwartz, runs January 6–15 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.

Left: Robert Bresson, Mouchette, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 78 minutes. Right: Robert Bresson, Au hazard Balthazar, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.


FOR MANY FILM CRITICS, film historians, and filmmakers, Robert Bresson is the alpha and the omega of cinema. Marguerite Duras said that watching one of his movies was like seeing film for the first time. Such claims continue to resonate with each generation that discovers Bresson. While his narratives and themes are powerful, the real thrust of the Bresson experience has to do with each film’s primordial engagement with images, sounds, and the rhythms that pulsate between them, as if one’s eyes and ears were being summoned to a singular feast arranged for no other guests. As this suggests, Bresson sought, increasingly, to purge the medium of its dependence on what he believed were the excesses of narrative cinema—professional actors, dramatically constructed scenes, and redundant dialogue. His aim was to shed everything that obstructed the essence of the work in order to make revelatory action the heart of every shot and the motive for every cut.

For some, this stripping down to essentials led to an ascetic and pure cinema; for others, it seemed punishing and withholding. Paradoxically, all four terms fit that aspect of Bresson’s style identified as “spiritual” by the critic Susan Sontag (in 1969), in that it required comparable mental rigor and emotional discipline on the part of the viewer. While this quality was initially linked to overtly religious subjects in Les Anges du péché (his first film, 1943), Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), something akin to it is equally discernible in A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967), and the late films Lancelot of the Lake (1974), The Devil Probably (1977), and L’Argent (1983).

Notwithstanding their alleged austerity, Bresson’s films are among the most seductive in the history of cinema. From Diary of a Country Priest to L’Argent, no image is inconsequential, no sound incidental, no cut invisible. He made the film experience as critical as the subjects that absorbed him. His aim was to make every viewer an ideal viewer, as attuned to every nuance of what is on the screen as to the significance and palpability of what is not. No better example exists of the evocative power of offscreen space and the sound that emanates from it than A Man Escaped.

As for his preference for untrained actors, virginal in appearance as well as experience before the camera, by now the faces of these “models,” as he called them, are so etched in the annals of film iconography that it is impossible to gaze at them unmoved. Nowhere is an innocence compromised by knowledge so indelibly limned than on the countenances of the country priest, the prisoner Fontaine, the pickpocket Michel, Joan of Arc, Marie in Au hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, the gentle woman, Sir Gawain, Charles (in The Devil Probably), Yvon (in L’Argent). Perhaps the most heartbreaking quality of Bresson’s films is the awareness of worldly corruption that we glimpse just beyond the glow that radiates from these young and beautiful creatures.

Left: Robert Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest, 1951, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Right: Robert Bresson, The Devil Probably, 1977, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.


As with all works of art, descriptive terms are relative to a context. The spare quality associated with Bresson is really a product of his clarity and his focus on the necessary. Far from minimalist, the formal invention of each film resonates with a thematic richness, often derived from the texts of such literary mentors as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Georges Bernanos. Like them, Bresson was preoccupied with big questions—the existence of God, the nature of evil, the ethics of the individual’s actions.

His narratives and themes negotiate the tension between existential doubt and belief in a divine being; at least four characters resort to suicide. The country priest stares into a void that only his faith can fill; the prisoner Fontaine’s determination to escape sustains hope in those around him; the pickpocket believed in God for only five minutes; Joan of Arc’s insistence that she is God’s emissary confounds the political and religious forces bent on her destruction; the donkey Balthazar, modeled after Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, is the most original and most affecting Christ figure in any work of fiction I know.

In 1957, when Bresson had completed only four of his thirteen features, the French filmmaker Jacques Rivette announced that he was “the only [French] filmmaker left who has not sold out.” The claim proved prophetic of the small oeuvre Bresson produced in forty-five years. Once thought alienating and esoteric, his aesthetics of economy, ellipses, and deadpan acting went on to influence just about every serious European filmmaker of the past four decades.

Orson Welles once said that, to be remembered, all any serious artist needed was one masterpiece. Bresson aficionados would dispute which of at least six candidates warrant that title. All of those will be screened in the near complete retrospective at Film Forum, in addition to Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) and the very rarely shown Les Anges du péché and Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), his rapturously photographed lyric on the fickleness of love—the last two being shown in new 35-mm prints. It’s hard to think of a better way to start out the new year.

Tony Pipolo

A retrospective of films by Robert Bresson runs January 6–26 at Film Forum in New York.

Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Simin and Nader (Leila Hatami and Peyman Moadi).


DOMESTIC STRIFE becomes a cultural microcosm in Asghar Farhadi’s beautifully crafted, impeccably acted film A Separation. An educated, middle-class couple files for separation. The wife, Simin (Leila Hatami), wants to leave Iran while her husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), refuses to abandon his sick and helpless father, and their adolescent daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), is left torn between them. Amid the chaos of the separation, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a working-class woman and devout Muslim, partly to do housekeeping, but mainly to tend to his father’s needs while he is at work. One day, he returns to find his father tied to the bed unconscious and Razieh nowhere in sight. Unaware that she left to see her gynecologist, he fires her on her return and accuses her of stealing some money he had left around unwittingly. When she protests and insists on being paid for the day, the enraged Nader pushes her out the door where she falls on the stairs and shortly after suffers a miscarriage.

The ensuing legal investigations—in which Nader is accused of murder and Razieh of criminal neglect—consume more than half the film. Each character’s behavior comes under scrutiny, not only by court officials, but also by the other characters and, of course, the viewer. For example, our first impression of Razieh’s unemployed, hot-tempered husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), from whom she has concealed her employment, makes us wonder if he played some role in her miscarriage. And though Nader seems sincere when he denies knowing that Razieh was pregnant, small clues hint otherwise. Fearful of Hodjat’s threats of revenge, Simin suggests offering “blood money” as a way to settle the matter. Though at first resistant, Nader agrees to the idea, but no sooner does this seem the solution than another twist is introduced. Razieh tells Simin that “she has doubts” because on the day before the incident on the stairs, she was struck by a car while pursuing Nader’s wandering father into the street, and experienced pains that very night. This makes her question her own culpability. Thus, when the couples meet to settle accounts with the “blood money” and Nader asks Razieh to swear on the Koran that he was responsible for her miscarriage, she hesitates. Convinced she will be violating her faith, she tells her husband the truth, after which he goes berserk.

Farhadi’s camera—often, if not always handheld—follows the nuances and unexpected turns in the action with effortless grace and subtlety. Immersive but not intrusive, detached but not judgmental, it is the absolutely right stance to tell a story in which each disclosure prompts adjustment of the viewer’s perspective, and in which truth and responsibility shift among the characters. This is not to say there is no narrative calculation. When Farhadi cuts away from Razieh in the street at the moment she spots Nader’s father, he imposes an omniscient perspective that deprives us of critical information, a strategy less detectable elsewhere in the film. But, by withholding what occurred until Razieh reveals it later, he sustains the notion that everyone behaves at any one time in proportion to what is at stake.

The film is bookended by long takes of Simin and Nader. In the first shot, they sit next to each other facing the camera as an offscreen official hears their case. In the final shot, under the closing credits, each sits on either side of a glass partition in a corridor outside the room where their daughter decides with whom she will live. Apart from the deliberate framing of these shots—which also serve to frame the story within the legal and cultural forces of Iranian society—the camerawork is admirably self-effacing. Even its moves and plays with focus in the confined spaces of the couples’ apartments and government offices are attuned to character behavior—open to the discoveries of the moment rather than staged as moral commentary.

Throughout the film, shots both of Termeh and of Razieh’s daughter register the way children learn about the social structures that monitor the lives of those they thought omnipotent. The film’s saddest moments involve the toll this knowledge takes, as in the scene when Nader finally admits to his daughter that he knew Razieh was pregnant, offering to confess if she wishes. While the ensuing crash of her fallen idol is barely discernible in her demeanor, it is no less devastating. But when she lies later to an official to defend her father, the shot of her tearstained face in the car afterward tells us her world has changed.

Tony Pipolo

A Separation opens Friday, December 30, in New York and Los Angeles.

Jonas Mekas, Sleepless Nights Stories, 2011, stills from a color video, 114 minutes. Left: Björk. Right: Jonas Mekas and Patti Smith.


JONAS MEKAS—filmmaker, poet, journalist, musician, godfather of American avant-garde film—turns eighty-nine this Christmas Eve and his recent digital diary movie, Sleepless Nights Stories (2011), has a shiver of mortality running through it. Perhaps it’s simply that Mekas’s inspiration is Scheherazade, the Persian queen whose serialized tales legendarily saved her life. In Sleepless Nights Stories, Mekas, suffering from chronic insomnia, keeps late-night company with old and new friends who have the gift of gab, their tongues lubricated by wine, their imaginations sometimes fired up by music. The movie is divided into brief episodes (the “stories” of the title) that more often than not comprise conversations among practitioners of various art disciplines. (The late architect Raimund Abraham opines at one point that the general designation of “artist” should be abolished.) Marina Abramović gives a performance that reminds us how interesting she was before she became an art diva. The conviviality of the participants is contagious; one is grateful that Mekas’s camera was a fly on the wall and that he himself was a gleeful, often wise participant.

Harmony Korine, the subject of one of the more intricately edited “stories”—three chapters that take place over four years condensed to about two minutes—laughingly describes Mekas’s shooting technique, how sometimes he just parks his camera on a stack of magazines or a sofa arm—always teetering on the edge—turns it on, and walks away. But not too far. Since the late 1980s, when he made the switch from 16-mm film to video, Mekas’s diaries have become increasingly “artless” in their imagery. In Sleepless Nights Stories, he casually employs the automatic focus and exposure settings on his point-and-shoot digital camera so that what we see is the camera seeking focus and light, as one might seek a thought or a memory. It’s not pretty to watch, but it can be extraordinarily moving. In one of several episodes that Mekas narrates in voice-over, he describes how, as a child in Lithuania, he would lie on his back in the woods and look up at the trees. On one occasion, he says he felt as if he himself were a tree, as if he were one with nature. It was, he says, the greatest moment of his life. As he recounts this experience, what we see is forest shot with a constantly moving handheld camera, the imagery like quick—and quickly discarded—sketches until, just once, a close-up of intensely green leaves comes into focus, filling the screen. As a depiction of a “peak experience,” this one is close to perfect and all the richer for its poverty of means.

Amy Taubin

Sleepless Nights Stories plays through Friday, December 23 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Mike Kerry and Chris Hall, The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, 2010, black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 103 minutes.


NAMED AFTER AN OBSCURE NOVEL by Willard Manus about a circus freak, Mott the Hoople were one of the emblematic rock bands of the early 1970s, their many stylistic phases—hard rock, singer-songwriter, country rock, glam—paralleling the genre shifts of the period. Like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, Mott were a cult band before the category existed, and like Lou and Iggy, they enjoyed a midcareer resuscitation from the original fan–rock star, David Bowie.

Originally a semimanufactured group consisting of four yobs from Herefordshire and a minor genius from Northampton, Mott were put together and named by legendary DJ and impresario Guy Stevens, a Phil Spector–level nutter with a healthy appetite for drugs and a reputation for studio mayhem. (Incredibly, Stevens had already formed and named Procul Harum, perhaps the second oddest band name in rock history.) Stevens ran the Sue imprint for Island Records, bringing American R&B to British shores under the auspices of a label then known for Jamaican music, and he wanted to create a band that would meld Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Enter the inappropriately named Silence (the four yobs), who were essentially signed to Island on the basis of the gumption they showed in lugging a massive Hammond organ up the studio stairs. At the time, they were fronted by a singer who, according to Stevens, didn’t have the right look, so he was demoted to tour manager.

Ads were placed for a singer–piano player, and Ian Hunter (the minor genius), who resembles a better-looking, ginger-haired Howard Stern, was auditioned and hired without great enthusiasm, almost as a stopgap. He turned out to be a good investment, quickly developing as a strong songwriter and charismatic frontman, equally at home in four-on-the-floor rockers and dark, emotive piano ballads. A limited but affecting vocalist, Hunter made good on Stevens’s dream of a Dylan/Stones amalgam.

Along with labelmates Free, Mott were early purveyors of cowbell rock—heavy, boogie-ish material with titles like “Rock & Roll Queen”—but they displayed a level of energy, eccentricity, and (occasionally) intelligence that set them apart from their peers. They soon became known as a reckless, exhilarating live act—making ardent fans out of Bowie, the nascent Queen, Mick Jones (later of the Clash), and Morrissey, among others—but record sales eluded them for their first four LPs. In 1972, after playing a desultory gig in a repurposed gas holder in Switzerland, they decided to split.

Bassist Pete Overend Watts (the other yobs also had great names—Mick Ralphs, Verden “Phally” Allen, Dale “Buffin” Griffin) auditioned for Bowie, and on hearing the news, the glam princeling flatly told Watts that Mott couldn’t break up. He offered them “Suffragette City,” slotted for his yet to be released Ziggy Stardust album, but they turned it down. Bowie then wrote a song specifically for Mott, which they instantly knew would be a hit. The song was “All the Young Dudes,” one of the key, genre-defining glam rock tracks. Mott enlisted Bowie as the producer of their next LP, signed with his management, defected to Columbia Records, and purchased truckloads of cosmetics and outrageous platform boots. The song went to #3 on the UK charts, and Mott entered the phase for which they’re best remembered.

Despite the success, Allen and then Ralphs left the band. Mott replaced them with maniac guitarist Luther Grosvenor—formerly of Spooky Tooth, he was dubbed “Ariel Bender” after an inside joke about vandalizing car antennae—and pianist Morgan Fisher, who contributed to Mott’s Liberace-on-LSD look of the period with candelabras and absurd keyboard-themed suits. Two glam-influenced, career-peak albums followed, self-produced by a newly Svengali-free band, with singles “All the Way from Memphis,” “Roll Away the Stone,” “The Golden Age of Rock ’n’ Roll,” and “(Do You Remember the) Saturday Gigs” keeping them in the charts and on the road. On the eve of their biggest American tour, with Bowie’s ex-guitarist-arranger Mick Ronson in tow, Hunter fell ill from exhaustion; gigs were postponed, then canceled; and Mott the Hoople ceased to be.

Brit filmmakers Chris Hall and Mike Kerry, whose previous documentary Love Story (2008) celebrated one of the other original cult bands, bring a similar fan’s ardor to the ballad of Mott, tracking down all the relevant people and blending raucous vintage performance footage with present-day, talking-head reminiscence. The yobs now look like schlumpy pensioners, while Hunter is relatively well preserved. All of the members are as personable and unpretentious as they were in their heyday; indeed, it’s hard to imagine even uninitiated viewers coming away from the film without great affection for the band. Picture Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998) getting mugged by This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and you have some idea of the resulting tableau. Wildly entertaining and all true. Carry the news.

Andrew Hultkrans

The Ballad of Mott the Hoople is now available on DVD.

Spy vs. Spy

12.08.11

Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Production still. Photo: Jack English. Ricki Tarr and George Smiley (Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman).


IF THE CURRENT INTEREST in the 1950s with its rigid gender codes and well-advertised postwar optimistic veneer seems largely a diversion, suitable for mockery and/or nostalgia, not so the ’70s, whose failures (Vietnam), corruption (Watergate), and crumbling economy on both sides of the Atlantic opened the door to Reagan’s and Thatcher’s reactionary governments and thence to the way we live now—too close for comfort to the way we were then. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), John le Carré’s cold war espionage procedural, is set in the early ’70s, inside Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6 or “the Circus”—the latter having to do with the proximity of its headquarters to Oxford Circus rather than with the madly straitlaced performative style of its employees. Le Carré’s hero, George Smiley, is brought out of forced retirement to find the mole who is delivering British and American secrets to Moscow from within MI6. The enormously successful novel—partly inspired by the traitorous Cambridge spies, most infamously Kim Philby—was adapted for British television in 1979 with Alec Guinness as Smiley, thus increasing le Carré’s fan base in both Britain and the US. (The series played here on PBS.)

And now we have Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), a most brilliant feature movie directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Gary Oldman in a performance of subzero cool that nevertheless ignites the screen with suppressed rage and longing. Far more lively, cruel, sexy, subtle, and poignant than the television version, TTSS opened a few months ago in Britain and scored at the box office. Chalk it up to ’70s déjà vu, because even more than the novel and the TV series, the movie is the antithesis of the blockbuster Bond and Bourne spy sagas. Not that TTSS lacks suspense; indeed, its narrative structure—many small slow burns within a single edge-of-your seat arc—is worthy of Hitchcock at his best. Nevertheless, those who want their spy films to be one long chase punctuated by gunfire and martial arts mayhem may find Alfredson’s vision a bit too cerebral for their taste. I, on the other hand, can imagine nothing more thrilling than watching Oldman’s Smiley look, listen, and think.

The movie’s only conventionally choreographed action scene—and the mechanism by which the plot is set in motion—occurs before the opening titles. Control (John Hurt), the beleaguered head of MI6, dispatches experienced agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to meet with a Soviet military officer who knows the identity of the mole. “Trust no one, Jim” cautions Control, but poor Jim makes one unfortunate exception in the name of love—about which we learn much, much later—thus creating a disastrous international incident that results in Control being sacked along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Control and Smiley’s exit from the Circus occupies much of the title sequence, during which they traverse the complicated, multileveled piece of architecture that houses MI6, wordlessly encountering and refusing to make eye contact with almost every character of significance in the events that follow. It is a masterful bit of motion picture making.

But no more so than the rest of the movie. Espionage is depicted as a thinking man’s game (although there is no doubt that Smiley could use his gun if pushed to it). Alfredson maps observations, suspicions, and deductions through frequent slow, seemingly weightless tracking moves that close in on objects and persons with charged intent: It’s camera movement as thought. Similarly, Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s deftly condensed script (dozens of le Carré’s pages stripped down to a single sentence) and the extremely elliptical editing within and between scenes—including a few subjective flashbacks—suggest mental processes (mostly Smiley’s) without the usual expressionist markings of subjectivity. (Alberto Iglesias’s elegiac orchestral score, with its touches of fado, does a great deal to establish tone.) The production design in myriad shades of gray and brown with the occasional hit of mustard or burnt sienna organizes almost every shot around frames within the frame (doorframes, window frames, picture frames, frames that move up and down or in and out) and streaked and dusty glass surfaces (mirrors, windows, windshields) that diffuse light and make it difficult to see anything clearly or directly. The look is rarefied, almost too ethereal, as if Smiley’s favorite painter would be Agnes Martin.

Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 2011, color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Production still. Photo: Jack English. Control (John Hurt).


The movie’s best joke is that chaos exists only within Control’s flat, glimpsed just twice—before his fall and right after his death. Control is also the only character who gives full vent to his anger and frustrations. Hurt is memorable in the role, as is Kathy Burke (the star of Nil by Mouth [1997], the only film Oldman has directed) as a former MI6 researcher, fired by the team that brings down Control because she’s come to the same conclusion that he did: “There is a mole right at the top of the Circus. He’s been there for years.” (When the plot is as complicated as this one, repetition is helpful.) The supporting cast is exceptional all around, although those playing the good guys—Hurt, Burke, Strong, and two of British cinema’s most eccentrically attractive rising stars, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch—are more vivid and nuanced than the suspected bad guys, who are merely nasty and curdled to the core.

But the movie belongs to Oldman, and anyone who wants to understand what movie acting is at its greatest should take more than one look at it. His Smiley is in a liminal zone between middle and old age. Certainly he has more past than future, and the particulars of that past infuse every gesture and word and especially his silences, which are frequent and long. His voice, which echoes Control’s way of speaking, is like steel sheathed in silk. His gait is feline, despite arthritic knees. His three-piece suits are perfectly tailored. The Cheshire Cat grin that once must have lit up his face is now just a memory etched in the muscles at the corners of his mouth.

His practice is to betray nothing himself, especially not his feelings about being betrayed, which he often has been. Smiley’s vulnerable spot is his unrequited love for his wildly adulterous wife, Ann. In both the novel and TV series, it’s mostly a gimmick—an easy way to show that Smiley has feelings. In the movie, Smiley yearns for Ann, whose face is glimpsed only for a second in profile, in a way that is truly heartbreaking and says everything about what happens in a relationship when one partner wrests all the sexual power from the other. There are three major scenes in which Smiley cannot, as it were, contain himself. The first is when he drunkenly describes his first encounter with his nemesis, Karla, a top man at the KGB. Another is his final confrontation with the Mole, whose betrayals are as much personal as political.

But the most wrenching and brutal is when, at a Circus Christmas party—one of the best scenes in the movie and one that’s not in the book—Smiley glimpses through a glass door the hands of a man he loathes all over his wife’s beautiful ass. A man in a Santa Claus costume wearing a Lenin mask has just taken the stage and all the assembled British spooks have risen to their feet to sing the Internationale. Smiley leans against the door gasping as if he’s been punched in stomach. His world is turning upside down and he has lost everything he values. It would have been a mercy—and a necessity if almost any actor other than Oldman were playing the role—for the director to pull the camera back, but instead he shoots Smiley’s crumbling face from three angles, all of them too close to hide anything. Acting, as they say, is reacting, and as reaction shots go, this one is at the top of the list.

Amy Taubin

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens in theaters on Friday, December 9.