I’m normally not much into cold war era stuff; between the bleakness of the whole Soviet situation and the incredibly bad fashion choices, I’m just not interested. I am not someone who thinks the idea of espionage is cool or glamorous. Okay, I enjoyed the first Bourne movie, but that’s about it. I loathe James Bond. I find any of the spy movies that treats it as fun or fabulous or anything other than dreadful to be totally moronic. And I only liked the first Bourne movie, since the girl snuffs it about 10 minutes into the second.
This movie though, is not a regular spy movie. It does not treat espionage as glamorous, it does not trade in heart-throbs drinking martinis. It is a lot closer to what I imagine MI-6 or even the CIA would have been like in the sixties and seventies. Which is not to say that I really enjoyed spending time in the world of the film. But it does allow me to take the movie seriously, which I usually can’t do with anything relating to spies.
This was a movie I had to see from the first moment I heard about it, despite my reluctance to see spy films. There would never be a movie with this cast that I wouldn’t go see. It stars Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt (aka Mr. Ollivander), Benedict Cumberbatch, and also has Tom Hardy and Toby Jones (most recently he appeared in Julian Fellowes’ Titanic miniseries. He was the little bloke with the mean Irish wife.)
So you know the acting is going to be good. The film is about a semi-retired intelligence officer (Oldman) who has to conduct a secret investigation to find the mole within MI-6. It’s a classic, trust-no-one, sort of movie where you spend half your time wondering if you are being tricked and Oldman is the mole.
The film is very interesting in its pace and its slow unraveling of realization and of facts. It takes a long time to figure out what’s going on, and it can take some patience to remain focused throughout. In that way, it sort of mirrors a real investigation–there are moments of insight and action, and moments of tedium and lack of progress. Also, the filmmakers have chosen to portray a ’60s-’70s Britain that is just as dull visually as you can expect it to have been in real life. This is not the bright colors and ludicrous outfits of Mad Men. This is bleak old furniture from the ’50s, the sort of government-sponsored buildings that all look like elementary schools or hospitals, and the tedious environment of gray file cabinets and early electronics yellowed with cigarette smoke. The very un-visually appealing nature of the movie is sort of visually appealing in its own way. It adds verisimilitude, I guess. Or maybe I’m projecting my own values onto it. I think that espionage, that living a life of lies and ambiguity would be necessarily bleak and awful, so I see the bleakness of the film as reflecting that truth.
At any rate, it’s a quiet, subtle film and in that way the exact opposite of Bond’s bright colors, invisible cars, jumping out of planes, etc. There are no combat scenes. The violence is realistic and horrifying. We mostly see the aftermath.
The overwhelming impression (I got) of the film is one where this is not a life you would particularly want. There are a few characters who come out of the action unscathed, but the majority of them are seriously fucked over by their time doing intelligence work. And, not to provide any concrete spoilers, a few died by the end.
It wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed being inside of, as I said. But I think the subject it covered was covered really well, accurately, believably. It didn’t glorify or glamorize any of the dirty business of espionage, but it also gave me a sort of thrill to be able to figure things out along the way. Because of the way it’s structured, you can discover little clues and figure things out from bits of information dropped in your lap casually 40 minutes earlier. Like a scavenger hunt. There was some sort of accompanying pleasure to do with picking up the pieces. But, overall, it wasn’t a pleasant film to watch.
The acting was brilliant, though quite understated and no one was given enough time or lines to really and truly shine. The only characters with a lot of screen time were Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Gary Oldman’s. Gary was playing a truly seasoned spy, and as such I think he downplayed his emotions quite a bit. His character doesn’t reveal much of anything, doesn’t react to much of anything. The sense I got from him was just of one big brain processing all possible information coming his way. Always thinking. Benedict’s character is younger (obviously) and less experienced, so I think it’s right that his character is a bit more ruffled by everything that’s going on. He does a really great job, though I must say he is a terribly ugly crier! Everyone else was only on film for moments here and there, so it was hard to really see them. I wonder if maybe they were in the movie longer than I think they were, and this just isn’t the sort of movie that lends itself to much emotion. Not to be stereotypical, but there are basically no women in it. Either way, there wasn’t much there. The only exception was Mark Strong, which wasn’t a name I recognized. He did a brilliant job with his part, though there was a part with a bird that I really disliked.
All in all, I think it’s worth watching, but don’t expect an action movie, don’t watch it if you’re tired, or if you like to think of the spy life as something out of Alias. It’s the sort of movie you have to be in the mood for.