Melancholia ****

Controversial film-maker Lars von Trier’s time at Cannes this year will be remembered for all the wrong reasons when his work should have got the lion’s share of the attention – especially as Melancholia is by far the better film than Palme d’Or winner, Malick’s The Tree Of Life. Much to von Trier’s distaste, this film is far more mainstream and commercial than his previous work, Antichrist, which makes it more accommodating to a wider audience, but perhaps equally contentious in other ways.

Set in two parts, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a depressive who believes a castle fairy-tale wedding is what she longs for and will make her ‘normal’ and fit into society’s expectations. When it all goes horribly wrong, her older sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is left to pick up the pieces in the second half. However, their world has a greater looming and impending danger that could bring an end to everything they know.

From the elevated Wagner crescendo opening of disturbing but breathtaking imagery, Melancholia is a strangely hypnotic and beautifully imagined ode to human suffering that feels burdensome with the impending planetary doom casting an even greater dark cloud. Depression is von Trier’s muse and his film is so peculiar and depictive of the illness that it all together drains and pulls – much like watching a car crash of biblical proportions.

The original idea came to von Trier after speaking to Penélope Cruz who loved French dramatist Jean Genet’s The Maids about two maids who kill their mistress. Substituting Cruz for Dunst (due to work commitments), and the maids for two very different sisters, this engrossing tale grapples with the idea of normality and everyday reality and ritual being so trivial and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, highlighted by the sisters finding some sort of perverted euphoria at the end to their suffering when the daily decisions are taken out of their hands.

Dunst who suffered from depression in real-life brings tragic warmth and a damaged spirit to her role of Justine, switching from playful and fun-loving one minute to glazed and lethargic the next with alarming ease. Hers is perhaps the closest illustration to the debilitating illness that cinema has ever witnessed, without trivialising it. A huge sense of melancholy fills each scene when Justine is present, resulting in some highly unsettling viewing. Her character transforms in the latter half, finding a raw inner strength that Justine has been searching for.

Gainsbourg as Claire is excellent, the ‘together’ and mentally stable matriarchal figure by scientist husband John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) side. Von Trier forever toys with his characters’ presumed contentment, more so with Claire who has the greatest to lose and therefore, rapidly descends faster than her younger sibling into her own kind of hell. It’s this yin-and-yang marriage of the sibling personalities that makes the sisters’ collective plight so alluring and robust.

Another reason to simply wonder at von Trier’s latest cinematic epic is the extraordinary imagery, from the slo-mo Dali-esque beginnings to the Delaroche/Waterhouse Pre-Raphaelite reproductions that hold a stunning, often naked Dunst in the fore. Melancholia may be about depression and human futility in the universe, but far from it being visually gloomy at times with its frenetic hand-held camerawork at the wedding, it romanticises every other aspect. We dip in and out of a colour-rich fantasy with stark contrast. One such example is the planet, Melancholia’s scenes that are awe-inspiring one minute with their illuminating blue wash over the golf course, to frighteningly ferocious the next with a nauseating hum forever present that adds to the doomsday dramatics. It is a totally challenging and absorbing experience.

Von Trier said he didn’t like his film. Some will have an immediate hate-hate relationship with it, possibly due to its art-house feel or a greater fear of the topics it tackles. Others will be left simply emotionally breathless. Either way, the master has unleashed another testing masterpiece that will draw out deep-seated anxieties and discussions for all.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Red State ***

“Establishment is flawed. Down with the establishment!” appears to be Kevin Smith‘s defining and sinister mantra in his Tarantino-esque Red State, done with brutal and twisted irony in a hail of righteous bullets. Its cynicism both cultivates and dissipates the bouts of humour in one of Smith’s most radical yet frank pieces of film-making yet that throws out a collection of controversial ideas.

Set in Middle America, three teenage boys receive an online invitation for sex with an older woman. But they soon encounter religious fundamentalists headed by disciplinarian Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) with a far more sinister agenda, as well as the law enforcement’s attempt at controlling their ideas.

Smith said audiences would ‘tremble in fear’. That’s not to say Red State is in anyway terrifying or differs from other shoot-em-up offerings. It’s the fear for mankind’s self-destructive mode that’s the greatest implied terror here, and the true horror of the whole affair. The idea that a set of beliefs or our own selfish desires can lead to events radically spiralling out of control is a weighty issue that Smith dwells on, and is highly topical in today’s terrorism-obsessed culture.

Red State is both a damning testament to those who fear God to the extreme, but also holds them a little in awe at their defiant nature in rejecting life’s temptations and societal rules. Smith doesn’t appear to come down in favour of either the believers’ or non-believers’ camp as such, showing the human flaws of all involved, and resulting in some chilling battle scenes where children are also expendable. The only pause for thought from all the ugliness comes with a presumed interjection from the Almighty that is both eerie and quietly amusing, but leaves both players and the audience utterly perplexed for a split second to allow the dust to settle.

Smith employs a wealth of talent in Parks, Melissa Leo and John Goodman, but the most striking performance is Parks as religious zealot Cooper who is hell-bent on exterminating life’s ‘diseased’ areas – pornography, homosexuality etc. You only have to listen to his gravely, menacing tones on the trailer to appreciate the impact Cooper has on the film’s tone and direction, and Parks’ charismatic but maniacal portrayal chills to the bone, more because of the reality of many Coopers nestled in the deepest, darkest recesses of the US of A and beyond.

Red State starts out like any horny coming-of-age flick full of hidden promise, but the end is nigh and comes too soon before any meaningful conclusions to be had – apart from the rebellious first line of this review. Cooper aside, who has some albeit perverse purpose, we are given very little scope to build any valuable empathy with the other characters, before they meet their maker. As cold-blooded as the killing is, this resonates with the soul of the film, often leaving you questioning Smith’s motives and character treatment altogether.

Unlike Tarantino’s iconic and colourful characters in his notorious crime sprees like Pulp Fiction, it’s best to take Smith’s rather alarming but watchable Red State as an inky-black satire of such God-fearing stand-offs, with the issues not the characters leaving the greater impression after the last bullet is spent.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Debt ****

The role of retired Mossad secret agent Rachel Singer in John Madden’s new espionage thriller, The Debt, is a highly fitting one for the immense on-screen talent, presence and investigative skills of actress Helen Mirren, no stranger to weeding out corrupt elements of society in her stint as TV’s Supt. Jane Tennison. But those banking on seeing Mirren recapturing her glory days will have to contend with her playing a rather enigmatic, if fickle character in this, and sharing screen time – and the younger version of Rachel – with exciting rising star Jessica Chastain.

Beginning in 1997, retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Mirren) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) hear shocking news about their former colleague David (Ciarán Hinds). All three have been venerated for decades by their country because of the mission that they undertook back in 1966, when the trio (portrayed, respectively, by Chastain, Marton Csokas and Sam Worthington) tracked down and captured Nazi war criminal Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin. At great risk and considerable personal cost, the team’s mission was accomplished – or was it?

Madden’s film adopts the non-linear trajectory of bringing us up to speed on past and present events, without over-complicating or confusing matters and affecting the simmering tension this thriller enjoys brewing. In fact, Madden’s story is actually set in the 60s rather than in present day, with Chastain deserving much of the credit for keeping Rachel interesting and sympathetic, but not without giving the final curtain bow to Mirren in a taut and nail-biting end stand-off.

Given general knowledge about events in Nazi concentration camps, the story has its ready-made motive. Each of the agents is tackling a personal loss that intriguingly plays havoc with their deadly mission. However, the more daring side that Madden does not really touch on is the political one of Mossad’s twilight ops. This would be a whole other film altogether, like Munich, when The Debt is really about a powerful love triangle between three people sent to do a dangerous job while leaning on each other for support.

Chastain, Csokas and Worthington make for an appealing dynamic, with three very different character personalities at play at any one time, all switching off when duty requires. It’s the slow deconstruction of their stoic façade by uncontrollable human emotions that gives added depth to an otherwise post-war romantic drama. The women in the film are tougher than usual, too. Chastain as Rachel is the catalyst for many events happening in the film, and does a magnificent job of tying in her accent and responses with those of Mirren who picks up the baton on the failed mission later on. The only niggling point is the changing facial features of all the six protagonists, with Hinds more believable looking as an older Stefan than a mature David.

Still, the defining moment of the film is seeing Mirren in a ‘battle of the OAPs’ at the very end, proving choreographed action scenes are not just the premise of the younger actor, as she pays the price to combat pure evil. The elation at seeing Mirren perform counterbalances the previous lies told by a reticent Rachel, and the story comes full circle in a reflective and poetic finale of resolution.

Madden’s tragic love story set within the thriller sphere plays to all his cast’s strengths by triggering character emotions in situations of fear – even those of the often wooden Worthington as a young David. The Debt also redefines the nostalgic 40s/50s spy thrillers of a by-gone era for a contemporary audience, substituting gritty realism for the glamour, and making things more plausible. In fact, Madden’s The Debt is a diligent fait accompli of the original Israel version, Ha-Hov, by avoiding poking at political hornet’s nest.

4/5 stars

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The Woman ****

Lucky McKee’s new horror The Woman is 2011’s very own I Spit on Your Grave for fuelling post-viewing debate and controversy. It is a love-hate piece of film-making designed to revolt, but also to allow us to reflect. To describe it as a “look into the darkness of human nature” gives it a purpose and an excuse for exercising some of the most raw and depraved acts seen in a long time. What it does deliver though is the much desired shock tactic, just when the genre feels like it has little else to stoop to and horrify us with.

Controlling family man Chris discovers a feral woman living wild in the woods and decides to capture her and civilise her ways with the help of his long-suffering family. Holding her prisoner in his home grounds, Chris finds the task more difficult than first thought, and his family’s fascination and well-intentioned compassion soon turns to sadistic cruelty.

McKee uses the feral nature of the Woman, defiantly played by Pollyanna McIntosh, as a mirror to reflect our own deepest, darkest instincts, which we keep intact through our belief in a legal system and our ingrained civilities that separate us from animals. What’s terrifying to witness in this film is how Chris, a lawyer, and others in authority like him, become so consumed with power that it corrupts them and their judgment. McKee’s story is an extreme analysis of this, and it’s said that abusive people start with cruelty to animals – the animal in this case is a human. The cruellest living mammal is human, too, it seems.

The subjects of rape, incest, brutality, domestic violence and murder are all dealt with, without much compromise or redemption. McKee aims to paint the disturbing truth of our psyche, and even has a slight dig at America’s religious bigotry – another man-appointed belief system designed to contain us. Chris uses the excuse of God to justify his actions – like a latter-day Crusader. Sean Bridgers is repulsively apt in the role, never allowing us to empathise with Chris, even at the start. His son, Brian (Zach Rand), copies his father, and these scenes are horrifying alone, but with a lot of youngsters being conditioned in war-torn areas around the world, his actions are never acceptable, but are better understood.

However, it is McKee’s female characters that strike the biggest punch and raise the greatest controversy. Whether they are powerless at first like Chris’s whimpering wife figure, Belle (Angela Bettis), McKee has set their fate without much room for improvement. Therefore, our initial sympathy ebbs away, whether intentional or not. Those who are tainted remain so, and there’s only one female who triumphs in the end, but she suffers for her defining moment. Revenge on the male captors also doesn’t feel adequate enough, considering their actions, and leaves you feeling wholly unsatisfied and without full justice served. Hence, the parallels McKee depicts to the animal kingdom are striking in this film, with the weak paying the price: It’s like watching a human nature study at times, once you get past the appalling violence – some shown, some not to fuel your imagination.

McKee not only succeeds in taking us to the most depraved depths of the human soul but also makes no apologies as the context is any one of us can relate at a certain level, anyone who has ever harboured an unnatural or barbaric thought. It’s this trigger of unease, coupled with the film’s bloody actions that make The Woman one of the most affective and most intense horrors seen in recently.

4/5 stars

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What’s Your Number? *

It’s the magic number some of us like to keep secret and others like to brag about, and it’s the subject of Anna Faris’ new rom-com What’s Your Number? that she also exec produces. Multi-tasking seems to be the key here, as Faris who stars in the film has to do much of the leg work, both on and off screen, to get any of this film’s scenes off the ground – even then that’s a tall feat.

Faris plays Ally Darling who is on a quest to find her best ‘ex’, after she reads a magazine article warning people who have more than 20 past relationships that they’ve probably missed their chance of true love and marriage. After another disastrous date and being fired from her marketing job, plus her younger sister, Daisy (Ari Graynor), getting married soon, Ally knows it’s time to get her life sorted out, with a little help from hunky neighbour and playboy Colin (Chris Evans).

Faris is forever bubbly and endearing in any role she’s in and does have great comic timing. She also has a wardrobe to die for in this that will please fashionistas and SATC fans – and the film appears more concerned with threads and bodies beautiful than sharp wit. However, with such a smart but dizzy character like Ally, Faris needs a strong romantic male lead to bounce off some of that energy.

Evans has all the physical credentials for such a role, however lacks any emotional depth or edge to Colin – we’re just left with cockiness without much charisma, and Evans as wooden as Ally’s puppets. The rom-com spark simply isn’t there between the pair, which results in a couple of characters’ large egos interplaying. And Evans looking forlorn in the latter half like a pining puppy just doesn’t fill the gaping romance void either.

The plot is incredibly predictable, which isn’t a surprise given the genre, and following on from the evolution of such contemporary offerings, the new rom-com women are all independent, smart and cynical – in fact it’s a wonder how any of them hook up at all. The plausibility of Ally and Colin doing just that seems miles off because of the lack of chemistry and meaningful scenes together, and their defining moment of unity at someone else’s wedding has been seen and done better and less awkwardly in many other films, missing that crucial end buzz and feel-good high that it’s all working towards.

2/5 stars

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Drive ****

Beginning like an updated version of Gone in Sixty Seconds, Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new action drama Drive puts its slick wheels in motion for a supposed heist flick, but settles into a dark ride of disturbing but exhilarating control.

Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman for hire. After getting to know his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is later released from jail, Driver soon discovers that a contract has been put on him after one last heist with Standard to pay off a debt goes horribly wrong.

Drive is a juggernaut of emotion that tentatively and unknowingly builds up speed then knocks you for six with some uncompromising and ultra-violent scenes – much like the level of violence witnessed in Winding Refn’s acclaimed Bronson. Drive has its foot on full throttle without you knowing it as Winding Refn controls the pace with long deliberate pauses to allow his characters’ development and emotions to dominate the majority of the film. It’s complete with a powerhouse performance from Gosling, sexy and evoking car rides, and a cracking 80s-styled soundtrack that adds to any petrol head’s thrill at watching this.

Drive’s lead Gosling plays the mysterious Driver to perfection, adding to the bad boy appeal, with the actor putting on his best poker face, but still allowing us to warm to his character when there is very little dialogue to rely on, especially as Driver develops his relationship with Irene and shows his deep respect for garage owner Shannon (Bryan Cranston). Driver’s actions are gentle and thoughtful, done more out of protection than aggression, like some dark avenging angel, which is why when his back is against the wall, and the level of violent is so extreme, we’ve been broken in gently for big shocks that follow.

Mulligan as Irene is a surprise casting in such a supporting ‘gangster’s moll’ type of role. But she does bring an element of determination, respect and realism to young mother Irene, with her trademark defiance and absorbing vulnerability, in a role that could have been left wanting and without any worthy impact in the story, opposite the strong silent Driver. The only questionable pairing is Mulligan opposite Isaac as her jailbird husband that seems oddly matched and slightly unbelievable as the married couple.

Winding Refn’s Drive is an ode to a modern-day love tragedy, where violence goes hand in hand with burning passion, complete with oozing sex appeal and beautiful metal machines to ogle. Gosling captures the imagination in this like a latter-day Steve McQueen behind the wheel, and sets temperatures racing in one of the most intimately intense roles he’s played.

4/5 stars

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Tucker & Dale Vs Evil ****

Debut feature director Eli Craig’s take on the comedy-horror genre is a glorious homage to all the townie-meets-country shlock horrors over the years, like an hilarious study of all the gory clichés turned on their heads. It still racks up the body count for genre fans and demonises the local White trash population, but cleverly manipulates the inevitable misunderstandings and miscommunications with expert comic timing and chilling pose.

Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) are two country boys planning on spending a break doing up Tucker’s ‘holiday shack’ in the woods. However, their plans are scuppered by the arrival of a bunch of townie college folks who naturally fear the worst after one of their friends, Allison (Katrina Bowden), has an accident and goes missing.

Craig delivers the same characters, settings and familiar scenarios, but recreates a wildly unique film as the normal bogeymen are given a voice and a conscience that puts both groups on an equal par, turning the woodland into a battle of wills and body parts. He toys with our stereotypes at first, especially when the hillbillies meet the visitors at a gas station in an awkward and inarticulate exchange, and mocks our ingrained expectations and prejudices. As the film progresses, this light-hearted jesting materialises in even bloodier set-pieces caused by one misunderstanding after another, fuelling the farcical comedy.

Tucker and Dale are the film’s unlikely anti-heroes with great big, daft hearts – like the Laurel and Hardy of the wilderness, willing to converse with the hysterical youngsters hell-bent on revenge and explain their side of the story. However, in a flip role for the genre, they find their civil façade under attack and do whatever is necessary to survive the onslaught. Tudyk and Labine as the two best friends have a delightful and understated comic timing, balancing the idiocy with the wisdom and emotion to form some of the most rounded and memorable horror genre characters in recent years, and possibly placing Tucker and Dale in the realms of contemporary cult hero status.

As with every woodland-based slasher, the attractive characters are ‘punished’ for being so and in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting their maker like expendable pawns on the game board of errors, but not without some very big laughs at their folly. That said Allison becomes the bridge between the two ‘cultures’, and Craig even ribs this fanciful attempt at DIY psychology in the film, making her seem totally ridiculous in her efforts to appease the two factions over a pot of tea, and resulting in Bowden hamming up her role to a treat.

Every horror needs its evil entity alongside its victims, and Chad (Jesse Moss) is highlighted from the start as the rogue player with his manipulation tactics and general disregard, making for an intriguing character arc and end reveal that’s fairly obvious from the initial flashbacks to a previous group’s bloody demise in the woods. Moss plays testosterone-fuelled Chad as both pathetic and frighteningly unhinged, but never forgets the winks to previous horror baddies, and injects as much panto humour into proceedings as the tenser moments will allow him to, but without losing the nail-biting impact.

Craig’s first feature film fully demonstrates his aptitude and passion for the horror genre in this topsy-turvy hoot, delivering a grim and confident fiasco full of clever contradictions and a couple of likeable champions of the hour in Tucker and Dale, while amusingly flying the flag for misinterpreted hillbillies everywhere.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Killer Elite **

The promise of a thriller with a sexy, all-star cast of Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro is enough to whet the appetite for a trip to the cinema. Debut writer-director Gary McKendry’s adaptation of Ranulph Fiennes’ novel, The Feather Men, should be the action man’s version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy this week. The big names are all present in Killer Elite, as are the dramatic stunts and action sequences, but all within an overly complex, erratic thriller framework that has moments of viable tension, but others of dramatic silliness.

When Danny’s (Statham) mentor Hunter (De Niro) is taken captive by a Sheik in Oman, the retired member of Britain’s Elite SAS is forced into action to free him by taking the lives of three assassins. But Danny’s mission is not to run smoothly, especially with an equally skilled killer, Spike (Owen), on his tail.

There’s no doubt that Statham, Owen and De Niro perform as expected in roles we have seen them in before, and you can happily get your fill watching them do what they do best in a testosterone-fuelled explosion of bullet-riddled mayhem that is pure old-school. Witnessing Statham meeting Owen head to head – once while tied to a chair – is what action sequences are made for, and there is a nice Paris Metro chase scene involving De Niro, too. Indeed, to add to the thrills and claret spills, Dominic Purcell as ‘gun for hire’ playboy Davies also raunchily captures the chauvinistic and on-the-edge nature of a trained killer for hire in the decadent 80s. The film’s mix is a gritty one of extreme violence with smatterings of ironic humour.

However, even with the reassuring ‘based on a true story’ line at the start and the rather topical element of a corrupt Arab leader settling personal grudges, McKendry’s stab at the genre is left more than unintentionally comical at times, mainly due to some poor script writing – one example being Spike’s meetings with a bunch of old secret service men that roll out every clichéd line in the thriller handbook. Another is the Indiana Jones-styled desert chase scenes and others involving the Sheik in his lair.

McKendry’s plot is riddled with holes and often lacks explanation while it jumps around so much that the only thing you can engage with are the set-pieces of daring action. Even some of these are borderline gratuitous, rather than adding to the tension created when killers come after killers. The whole affair smacks of film-making inexperience, which is a shame considering the wealth of the source material and talent.

At the very least, McKendry allows us to revel in and be entertained by his star cast – the only advantage of this woefully under-developed exploitation action-thriller. The tragic thing is thinking just how much better it could have been in more experienced hands.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ****

Tomas Alfredson came to attention in 2008 after his atmospheric thriller, the acclaimed Let The Right One In, about a young boy who befriends a vampire. The Swedish director now takes his chills-making expertise and coolly applies it to a John le Carré spy thriller adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and adds a spectacular cast of seasoned actors at the peak of their careers, including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong and Ciarán Hinds, to produce a powerhouse spectacle of acting prowess.

Set in the bleak days of the Cold War (1970s), espionage veteran George Smiley (Oldman) is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet agent within MI6’s echelons, known as the Circle. There are four possible suspects who may be the mole that is leaking secrets to the Soviets. Can Smiley discover the culprit before he realises Smiley is hunting him down and destroys the evidence?

Alfredson’s film requires the viewer’s full and undivided attention if it’s to succeed. With this in place, it’s film plot gold, with only a smattering of action sequences of the traditional, film noir-style ‘shoot-them-up’ kind, rather than all-out excess that often peppers contemporary spy thrillers. More a character study within a traditional thriller mould, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy matures at its own deliberate pace in a marvellous recreation of sharp 70s style and growing anxiety, fitting of Le Carre’s work.

That said the captivating elements of the film are not necessarily the spy story itself that builds the tension beautifully as almost a sub-context, but watching the riveting screen exchanges between some of the finest British actors today, in settings that are worthy of capturing as a photograph or painting at any one instant; each scene is superbly crafted.

Oldman’s man-of-few-words Smiley is a force of reflective menace, sumptuously underacted but utterly domineering in any exchange he finds his character in, and surely worthy of Awards recognition. Firth is naturally at home in the British corridors of espionage power, almost typecast in a sense, in a boisterous and outspoken part as suspect spy Bill Haydon, a role that befits his eloquent tones and flamboyant air. Jones, Hinds and Swedish star David Dencik as the other possible moles on Control’s (Hurt) chess board all give stellar performances that alternate between conceited highs to cowardly lows. Hurt makes his own mark at the start as the linchpin of the operation, callously set up and brushed aside, but forever the film’s looming conscience.

Two younger actors, though, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch, deserve special recognition for their more ambitious moments that involve a lot of the film’s action sequences, placing them on a par with acting stalwart Strong in injecting the film’s nail-biting set-pieces as Smiley’s dig for clues escalates, especially Hardy as Ricki Tarr who delivers his reveals with pose and purpose.

Alfredson’s screen version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an acquired taste, a return to cinema of the 40/50s that requires cerebral input and facts recollection, even though some might guess the culprit long before the coldly calculated end reveal that might possibly diffuse the mounting intrigue and suspicion. Nevertheless, for those who do, the prize is being proven right, adding a whole different, but still exciting dimension to the riddle. As said this film is more a platform of acting greatness that defines British cinema and novel writing as world class. It is a nostalgic tour de force that demands due diligence.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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