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MOVIE/ After Hedonism: A review of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Elise Matich reviews Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, describing the empty detachment of postmodernity, only remnant of the excesses of modernity, that pervades the film.

Poster for the film Poster for the film

As I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster.

So muses Charles Ryder, artist, soldier, and avowed agnostic, at the outset of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited. Although Waugh penned his character’s reflection during the waning days of the Second World War, his portrait of listless, loveless existence captures the post-modern human condition. Modern culture sought fulfillment in sensuality, like a husband and wife exacting of each other the means of self-satisfaction. After years of pursuing ever more titillating excesses, the modern hedonist has reached the post-modern nadir of the disenchanted spouse: the fulfillment he sought is illusory.

The empty detachment of post-modernity pervades the recent film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Based upon the John le Carré thriller of the same name, Tinker Tailor is a finely acted, cleverly crafted story of Cold War era espionage. Spy flicks carry the expectation of a certain amount of violent content, so the film’s numerous assassinations are hardly surprising. Yet, even this anticipation of violence fails to prepare the viewer for the film’s disturbing imagery. Although suspenseful flashbacks and understated dialog carry most of the film’s action, completely gratuitous, luridly graphic scenes color its effect. Where the sight of a body slumped over a desk would have sufficed to advance the story, the filmmakers chose to accost the viewer with macabre realism. Grotesque visions of flies devouring decaying human flesh, a disemboweled corpse, and a point-blank execution remain in the mind’s eye long after the tense intrigue of the plot has faded. The horror of these images moves beyond superfluous thrills aimed at ever expanding modern appetites. Rendered with a kind of perverse artistic quality, these scenes reflect the deadening recognition that all the pleasures of the world have failed assuage its inhabitants’ ache for fulfillment.