Wednesday, September 21, 2016


I recently had a late night viewing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This was probably the third time I’ve seen the film, which according to my own personal gauge for judging the effectiveness of a film’s design made it the perfect opportunity to begin analyzing its visual language. Why three?

On first viewings design itself should generally go unnoticed. If it is done well the visual choices empower the story, working in seamless harmony with all other creative choices that shape the film--from casting and performance to score, sound and so on--creating a completely immersive viewing experience that convinces the viewer what they are seeing is a 'reality' and not just a bunch of artists and craftspeople throwing their work up on the screen. 

By the second viewing individual elements and choices should begin to stand out, leaving distinctive and memorable images in the viewer’s mind after the film ends. By the third screening, when the mind knows the story and the senses can drift to other aspects of the work, the craftsmanship should then begin to surface, revealing the patterns of thought and logic behind the visuals.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a complex work of cinematic art stemming from a complex novel flush with sophisticated themes of trust and betrayal, allies and enemies, all wrapped around a dangerous puzzle of cold war espionage. It came to me then as a delightful surprise that I should not just begin discovering aspects of the film’s design logic at this stage, but I believe, totally decode it. 

And here lies the interesting thing about this film’s design: like the unfolding of the masterfully complex mystery that must be solved by the film’s protagonist, Smiley, so is there a visual code for the audience to decipher. And there just so happens to be visual cipher* that makes the design logic of the film so blatantly obvious that in retrospect the design is even more amazing it isn't noticeable before. 

Now all of this is pure theory, of course. I haven't read interviews and don't have any evidence to back up my interpretation. But this is part of the innate beauty of art: whatever meaning is created through the expression of the artist gains new meaning through the impression of the viewer. At leas this is my rationale and I’m sticking with it.

Above are shots from before the appearance of my so-called cipher. On their own any design logic doesn’t seem to jump out. There is a standard compositional range with a number of wider shots establishing locations, a generally subdued palette switching between warm and cool, and some somber architectural settings relevant to the period and setting; nothing particularly unique given the serious tonality of the subject matter. 

Across these early shots we are introduced to ‘Control’, the head of British Intelligence who we will learn is subversively forced out of service and who takes with him his faithful ally, Smiley. Beholden by loyalty, Control’s logical successor goes home to contemplate his new life out of the game, which we will further learn had been recently made even more meaningless after his wife betrayed and left him. 

At this moment in Smiley’s upturned life he stands in front of a wall in his empty home, work and purpose now behind him, contemplating a simple post-modernist painting of drab colored squares on a dark field. The image itself seems to say nothing. It’s abstract and even our genius spy Smiley doesn’t seem to be able to make anything of it. Yet it holds him and the viewer transfixed for a moment. 

This painting I argue holds the clue to the visual language of this complex film. This is the cipher that changed how I looked at the rest of the film and found meaning in its visual-emotional storytelling.

And what makes this design choice even more significant is that is also an integral story device that prevents Smiley, one of ‘British Intelligence’s’ greatest spies, from solving the mystery earlier in the story. It is as much a decoy to the protagonist as a cipher to the audience. Even more, it is a key that leads to his and our understanding of the film's central mystery.

But I'm not going to spoil this discovery just yet! In effort to shorten my posts and to give you the chance to make your own discoveries, I'm saving my full visual analysis and breakdown for next week's post. In the meantime, go watch the movie and take a good hard look at Smiley's painting. See if you catch what I caught. If you do, just don't spoil my next post! :-)

*(I know I'm using the word 'cipher' incorrectly here my cryptographer friends. Forgive me!)

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