First one, then another… at the showing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I attended last weekend, numerous people walked out of the movie. By the third or fourth exodus, I noticed that viewers were exiting in the film’s most still moments: when the camera lingers on retired spy George Smiley, pensively sitting alone in a pub or when he gives a long, tipsy monologue about his encounter with Russia’s top spymaster. The action had slowed, the hunt had paused – and some voted with their feet.
It’s intriguing that this complex remake of John Le Carre’s classic thriller seems to divide us. Critics, as far as I can see, are mostly laudatory – extolling the cinematography, superb acting, the complex story line. But we, the viewers, seem to love or hate the film; only two of 34 reader-reviewers on The New York Times.com give the movie a score of three out of five. Most rate the movie one/two or a four/five, detesting the film as “slow” and “sluggish” or praising it as “brilliant” and “engaging” - and the naysayers outnumber the fans.
Writes marsacademy: “This film may not find a huge audience, because it has a quality of watchful stillness at its core, which is very unlike what the public expects of a ‘spy film.’ It is not an ‘action’ movie.”
Well put. I think that’s precisely why people were walking out. It’s just a movie of course, and excitement is subjective; your terrifying Ferris Wheel ride could be my aerial nap. But it’s perhaps a mark of our times that people could line up so vehemently in opposite corners over action vs. stillness. Although many of us increasingly battle for calm, we’re still surrounded by – and strongly influenced by – a culture of the quick hit, push-button, the ever-rising tide of busy-ness. After all, adrenaline is as addictive as drugs, studies show.
We may be so shaped by the gadget as appendage, tv as white noise and chit-chat as interaction that it seems stifling to be confronted by stillness. If so, we will surely miss out on the second and third layers of life, or the mysteries that perhaps even our best spymasters may never solve. Hurry past quiet, and we cease to see, as Seamus Heaney once wrote, “allegory hard as a figured shield … polished until its undersurface surfaced, like peat smoke mulling through Byzantium.”
In life as in movies, we have to pause to see what’s beneath the polish.