Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film often credited with removing the sensationalism from the spy film genre. This is not to suggest a subsequent removal of the sensational from every spy film following its 2011 release. However, the film’s departure from the blockbuster epic filled with hyper-kinetic action was heavily emphasized by some of the coeval films. The Bourne Ultimatum was released four years before and Salt just a year. Of course there were the Bond films, Quantum of Solace releasing three years before and Skyfall appearing in 2012.
Regarding cinema of the 21st century, it would appear as if the Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) film was a blip in a series of spy films that seemed to be primarily focused on spectacle – even if the action scenes attempted to ground themselves in brutish reality. Through the entire run of Tinker Tailor, there is one punch landed, and it occurs between two coworkers over annoyance/anger rather than any murderous intent. There are only three people who get shot, all of whom were standing still. There are no chase sequences. There are no explosions. There are no sexy cars. There are no gadgets. There are no fight scenes. Death occurs almost entirely off screen, leaving only the brutish result behind.
But a bloodied, disfigured, or in one case, disemboweled corpse, is in itself sensationalism within the context of the cinematic experience. The large lambency casts the horrific in an arguably digestible light. It does not remove the grotesque from the sordid realm, but the diabolical is relatively contained within the verisimilitude – we know it is not real. In the case of Tinker Tailor, suggesting its separation from sensationalism is an understood statement; it is not a form of absolute. Simultaneously, to enter a discourse on the effects of violence, although rare in this film, albeit grotesque upon arrival, is a perambulation I do not wish to go about.
Instead, color seems an interesting subject. The film is muted. It is filled with brown and grey tones, a dully-colored wardrobe, and thick layer of cigarette smoke acting as an opaque veneer for scenes with groups of fellow Circus (MI6) members. It is possible that a muted visual pallet will act to de-sensationalize a film – a visual sobering. Yet, paradoxically, since it creates a stronger verisimilitude, the shock increases upon seeing death. Sometimes, it is nicer to see the cartoonish red spray of Tarantino. Hence, it is more shocking and it lingers for a greater period, the violent result sitting deep in the pit of your stomach as if you have seen something you really should not have.
“But it is made to feel more accurate right? It was not produced to create excitement. It was produced to create horror perhaps. Hence, by definition, it is not sensationalism!” Well, if Alfredson’s intention fit exactly as per description, then perhaps yes, it is not sensationalism on his part as the director. However, the problem lies in the communicative practice of cinema – an audience unfortunately shares it. The horrific can produce excitement within the setting of fiction. Perhaps the best Tinker Tailor can do is be a muted form of sensationalism and the only immoral way to escape it is to actually kill the actors. Which is perhaps why certain documentaries are able to escape the horror/excitement dynamic – purely because the accounts of violence within them, should they exist in the film, are unquestionably real leaving the viewer in a desolate emotional seat.
Outside the realm of the visual, the film ends with a Julio Iglesias’ cover of La Mer playing over a montage that wraps up some loose ends. It is an instance of the perfect moment where film and music match. It is pretty sensational. But perhaps not in the way you would expect from a spy film. Although the track features clapping that matches with the action of the montage in a climatic way, it also plays over scenes of deep emotional value, one of which is coldly unresolved. Hence, this sonic movement is incomparable to the Bond theme playing in the last scene of any Bond movie ever, or Moby’s Extreme Ways coming on at the end of a Bourne film.
To call Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a practice of distancing from the sensational is undoubtedly anchored in the films that came before and after it. Evoking the old adage of there is no purity without impurity, there is no sensational with banal accuracy on deceptively banal subjects. Obviously film started with as a rather sensational experiment, one early film featuring a train coming towards the audience only to terrorize everyone present. Then is Tinker Tailor a tasteful response to the Hollywood progression? Is the subtle form of the sensational better?