Sometimes seeing one film right after another can influence your opinion of both films. I recently saw “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Tree of Life” within a period of a few days, and the latter film suffered for it.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was adapted from the classic novel by John LeCarré about a Soviet spy infiltrating MI-6, affectionately known as The Circus, and the efforts of recently un-retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to identify the mole. Tinker Tailor is an intricately woven tapestry of characters and subplots and myriad tiny details that seem to lead nowhere but which, taken together, eventually reveal the traitor. The film’s pace feels slow, especially at first, but characters are introduced and the story moves between subplots in a way that suggests that the filmmakers expect the audience to be at least as intelligent as they are.
The cast of Tinker Tailor, almost a Who’s Who of British actors, brings its collective best to the game. Oldman earned his first Oscar nomination for his subdued portrayal of Smiley, a lesson in breaking rules and defying expectations. He seems to disappear into the shadows, never calling attention to himself, the way an experienced spy would behave in the real world. He is the embodiment of self-control, and still the audience sympathizes with him.
Mark Strong gives probably the most physical performance in the film and the most heart-breaking scenes center on his Jim Prideaux. John Hurt as Control portrays a head spy’s descent into paranoia, however justified. Benedict Cumberbatch continues his streak of incredibly intelligent characters, even if Peter Guillam isn’t in the same intellectual league as Sherlock Holmes or Stephen Hawking. I could go on about the cast (including Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Kathy Burke, et al.), and maybe another time I will.
I wanted to like “The Tree of Life,” and if I had seen it before Tinker Tailor, I might have. Malick took some enormous chances with his epic experiment. “The Tree of Life” wants to be a grand poem that explores the meaning of life in astonishing and beautiful ways. The cinematography expertly captures the gorgeous imagery, and the cast is excellent. Brad Pitt gives probably his best performance since Fight Club, and Jessica Chastain shows yet again why she’s getting so much work—she can do just about anything.
The story gives viewers very little to grab onto; this film feels like a mix of memories, dreams, and fantasies. As such, it’s loaded with metaphors, some of which are insultingly ham-fisted. The Tree of Life might have been a breath of fresh air after watching a truly stupid film, but on the heels of a film like Tinker Tailor that requires the viewer to run (or at least jog) to keep up with it as it seems to stroll, the Tree of Life’s theme of grace versus nature feels as solid as vapor.