Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Toward the end of Tomas Alfredson’s film of John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an elusive double-agent, who’s betrayed British state secrets to the Soviet Union for over 20 years, defends his decision to have done so on aesthetic grounds. And you can hardly blame the bloke, considering the portrait of early-’70s London that the director paints from the start. Let the Right One In, his Swedish sleeper hit, covered some of the same well-trod Transylvanian ground as Twilight, but was enveloped in the ghost-story fog of an adolescent daydream rather than the pulpy throes of paperback romance. Atmospherically, T2S2 doesn’t disappoint. It’s almost lusciously wretched: Sartorially, the establishment seems to have given in to the dressed-down 1960s rather than embraced it. Hair is longer and skirts are shorter, but the Swinging London façade of the Beatles and Blow-Up has all but corroded; it’s been reabsorbed into An Education-era tattiness like a mouse in Mountain Dew. Nowhere is the closing gap between generations more visually odious than among agents of the Mi6—referred to here as “the Circus”—who felt their oats fighting the Nazis, but have since lost their grain, and purpose, to their burlier American counterparts. The wall of their cramped conference room is brazed with burnt-orange acoustic tiles; at their Christmas party, they’re regaled with a chintzy disco cover of “La Mer.” Victoria’s Empire has gone to seed. And as fascinating—visually—as that is to behold, it undercuts one’s interest in the plot—as if the production designers were double-agents, too. Alfredson cites The Conformist as an influence; but Bertolucci rhapsodized Mussolini’s Italy, even its moral ugliness, whereas this look at pre-Thatcher England is drenched with boredom.

Le Carré’s hero is a veteran spy named George Smiley. The character is often described as anti-Bond; a paunchy, patient, middle-aged martinet, he’s more-than-anti-Lisbeth Slander. As embodied here by Gary Oldman, he’s been plucked from forced retirement to finish an internal-affairs investigation initiated by his now-deceased boss called Control (played, in flashbacks, by John Hurt—who looks ready to pull a coronary from his pocket at a moment’s notice). To say that the story is about Smiley unearthing the above-mentioned style-conscious mole is to untangle a corn maze and torture it into a straight line; but, at each twist and turn, this labyrinth is chocked full of mannered British gents pecking away at Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s dialogue as if it were their elevenses. The main problem confronting the filmmakers—more than paucity of action and density of plot—is the fact that most of the relationships between the characters are sketchy; by design, these Circus performers are less like acrobatic secret agents and more like lions brought in from the wild, their urge to escape all but tamed. (The irony here is wicked, but it isn’t necessarily involving.) What may be meant as reserve comes across more as resignation—as if, with the depreciation in value of British national security, everything else has gone belly-up.

That includes the patchy narrative. If you’ll permit me a SPOILER ALERT, the issue of the double-agent’s identity is dramatically null: If more attention were directed at that character, it would be too obvious; but since there’s so little attention given to him (other than the big red flag that he’s played by Colin Firth), or our hero’s feelings of betrayal—since this mole has also burrowed into Smiley’s wife—the revelation comes at the cost of anything like suspense or emotional attachment. (The celebrated 1979 BBC-TV version, starring Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, wasn’t immune to this, either; though, strangely enough, it made a richer sound when striking its psychosexual chords.) But even if, in terms of intrigue, Alfredson can’t beat, say, the first few episodes of Homeland, he can impart a sense of imperial longing that American audiences can connect with right now—in the way I think they connected with An Education. The irony, of course, is that members of the Homeland Security department—and those that have benefited financially from its de facto privatization—are among those least likely to feel the pinch. But anyone else who was ever once assured of our national top-dog status, and now has his doubts, might be advised to watch how Smiley, after a brandy or two, recounts meeting his Soviet adversary Karla at a time when the latter’s position was politically vulnerable. Oldman—whose bullfroggy jowls make him live up to his surname—pantomimes this interaction for a junior officer, going through a tired West-is-best spiel that sticks to the Red idealist like grease on a Teflon pan. (This is much more effectively handled than it was in the miniseries, which flashed back to Guinness interrogating Karla. But since Guinness played Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Patrick Stewart (the future Captain Picard) played Karla, and, on top of that, Oldman is telling this story to an agent played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was just cast as the villain in the next Star Trek prequel—it’s enough to coldcock the space-time continuum.) Oldman says that he saw Smiley as someone coming from a position of “moral certainty,” which may explain why his impassive stare looks vaguely pompous whereas Guinness’s seemed slightly abashed. In short, Oldman’s frowny Smiley is the kind of Brit that Sid and Nancy fought to break free from. He’s a fine mascot for the film’s mood: There are so many secrets lurking behind these spies’ wrinkled poker faces; but all that their dedicated stoicism has amounted to is their birthrights being washed away. Call it a royal flush.


A Dangerous Method

Slavoj Žižek once said that the goal of traditional psychoanalysis was to help patients overcome their internal prohibitions so that life could be freely enjoyed; but that “the problem today is that the commandment of the ruling ideologies is ‘enjoy.’” In other words, society now promotes what it used to require we repress. What happened in between was the 20th century. (For Philip Roth, who made a related point in American Pastoral, what happened was the ’60s.) As naughty as he seemed in his own time, and as nutso as he sometimes continues to seem in ours, Sigmund Freud was a 19th-century rationalist—an exorcist armed with Enlightenment thought and Victorian optimism. At the time, good and evil—man and beast—was considered a simple, separable binary; hence the no-strings-attached breakup of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As the Freud played by Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method makes clear to the Carl Jung played by Michael Fassbender, reason is the sole entrée to respectability; the scientific method, as exacting as the society that produced it, is required to housebreak the animal mind. A dangerous method is one that embraces the irrational, and this movie laments that embrace.

The director, David Cronenberg, admits that he hews closer to Freud than Jung; and the style of this film gives credence to the value of repression. As applied to some of his out-there cult classics, like Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983) and Crash (1996), his sterility seemed ludicrous—more daft, in my opinion, than profound. (Sterility and surrealism can be antipathetic, with results on par with psychedelic dentistry. However, they were paired together like merlot and brie in his adaptation of Naked Lunch (1991), and were sharply contrapuntal in his deconstructive A History of Violence (2005).) In terms of violence, his last film, Eastern Promises (2007), was anything but repressed; but in A Dangerous Method—which Christopher Hampton adapted from his play, The Talking Cure, as well as a book by John Kerr—violence looms on the horizon. Once the heroes have their falling out, it’s incorporated into their politely worded missives. Freud is guardian of the past, Jung the unwitting arbiter of the future. (As an index to the trouble to come, Jung has a vision presaging the First World War; and, as we are told in an afterword, he is the only central character to have survived the scourges of the 20th century and to have arrived, peacefully, at old age.) Even if there are a couple dramatic shortcomings—Jung, for instance, has already jumped from straight-laced to loose-cannon by his second meeting with Freud—there’s a compelling and lucidly told story hidden under these potentially stagey confabs like a female figure crammed into a wasp waist.

As always, there’s a woman involved. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) was another frontier psychiatrist, albeit one whose reputation has been buried under the avalanche of history. She’s the Mary Jane Watson in Jung’s origin story—though, rather than being the girl next door, she’s a girl in his psychiatric ward, in treatment for hysteria. In movies like Atonement and Never Let Me Go, Knightley’s high-strung hauteur has been used for bitchy ends, and maybe she’s been cast in so many period pieces because her bearing can put her at a remove from the audience. Here, she’s so high-strung that Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia looks as chill as a Phish Head. Her performance has gotten flack from some critics for being overwrought. In the grips of Spielrein’s supposedly incest-induced illness, the actress seems almost in a state of perpetual emesis; her teeth and eyeballs look like they’re about to be bowled over by whatever toxic thought is snowballing in her brain. But it didn’t seem like scene-stealing Oscar bait to me: She’s wildly physical but terribly introverted. Fassbender—one of those actors who’s appeared as promiscuously on the screen this last year as his nympho in Shame—first presents Jung as a stiff Swiss bourgeois. Pale-eyed, pasty, and afraid of his own impressionability, he’s the egghead archetype—too earnest to crack. His mentor from Austria, after their legendary 13-hour first conversation, is impressed enough to refer one of his own patients, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), to Jung. Cassel plays this mangy sexaholic as both resigned and self-impressed; he’s dunked the strictures of the polite society Freud holds so dear into the watery grave of Lake Zurich. This bohemian hedonism, simplistically but convincingly, induces Gross’s naïve shrink into giving it a go. He has an affair with Spielrein, to Freud’s disapproval. They become the Jung and the Restless.

Continue reading “A Dangerous Method”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Every yuppie’s uncle has read and raved about Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; but, having been burned by other such business-class classics as Angels and Demons, I couldn’t kick back the inertia enough to get past page five—especially since David Fincher, by directing the Hollywood version, seemed poised to render a time-consuming investment in the book practically nil. But I did get far enough to know why so many readers get sucked in: The prose can be shotgunned like a can of Bud Light. Or, better yet, a Red Bull. And Fincher, it turns out, does the equivalent in editing; every shot has been trimmed a few frames too early. The film is a two-and-a-half hour redo of the high-speed palaver at the start of The Social Network, when Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara burned through eight pages of script faster than fascists at a Barnes & Noble. But, here, Fincher directs with the subtlety of a Tokyo subway pusher. And though I realize what’s being squeezed is Larsson’s massive Swedish meatball of a plot, I can’t help but feel a little groped. The director has perfected an immaculately clear style, and it’s used expertly when the heroine’s bag gets lifted and she reclaims it in a jiffy—as if she knew this maneuver by heart. But if ever a literary property begged for stutter edits, or the narrational info-graphics used in movies like Moneyball and A Beautiful Mind, or even the cheeky ingenuity of its own viral marketing campaign, it’s this one. What I’ve been too dismissive to know I’d missed, it seems, is the density of Larsson’s data: the details of an old family’s history, and all the dirt that keeps its tree nourished. So after the Bondian opening credits—in which a digitized likeness of Daniel Craig flounders about in a tar sinkhole while Karen O breathes some angry sex into a Trent Reznor redub of a Led Zeppelin standard—what follows is a graphic letdown. It’s an earful of fast talk.

Fincher has said that he wanted to make a “franchise movie for adults,” and that’s a noble ambition; but, at times, the film seems more like it’s part of an adult-movie franchise. All the intrigue surrounding right-wing political conspiracies (the thriller material concerns a family of reclusive industrialists, and the mysterious disappearance of one of their relatives, 40 years earlier) is a MacGuffin for the putative enigma that is Lisbeth Salander. She’s the ink-stained super-genius of the title—a bisexual bad girl who’s fluent in source code and dismal at small talk. I found her unflappable competence tiresome—more convenient than mysterious—but Mara grabs one’s attention like a teenage drama queen whose period is verging on an exclamation point; her flat voice eeks out low on the register, filtered through a pout, her tongue not enunciating at full capacity, as if it has recently been pierced—by a lawn dart. But Lisbeth’s rape-revenge number, whatever its original intentions, comes off as embarrassingly crude: Sucker Punch feminism, furnished by Ikea. Her vengeance is a perfectly designed s&m fantasy; it titillates one’s prurience and then rewards it in the form of righteousness—which is even more perverted. Lisbeth is what repressed older men must think punkish young women are like. However, I should give Larsson and his fans some credit; his readers must be more than grown-up Twihards. (Should we call ’em Dragoons?) The novel is the first in the Millenium trilogy, and must have been written long before its author’s death in 2004. Its idealism both harkens back to the 1990s—when the Internet was still the Wild West, before the likes of Google and Facebook arrived to tame it—and resonates with the Year of the Protester. For Larsson—an investigative journalist like his klutzy hero (Craig), who recruits Lisbeth as an assistant—the enemy was the “financial mafia”; and, in his vision, this ubiquitous cabal with unlimited means can be beaten by an anarchic outsider armed with technical knowhow and an appetite for justice. That alone may be compelling enough to get past page five for. I guess it’s about time.