Academy Mistakes: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ for Art Direction

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Throughout the first half of February, the Sound On Sight staff will take a look at the Academy Awards.

Rather than write about any of the Academy’s many Best Picture mistakes, or any decisions that I wasn’t alive for and was thus ignorant of the huge amount of extenuating context surrounding any such decision, I’ll concentrate on a very current Academy misstep.

The Art Direction nominees for the 2012 Academy Awards include The Artist, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hugo, Midnight in Paris and War Horse. Among them, four pure period pieces (including one hybrid) and one pure fantasy. Missing from this group, in an egregious error, is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the most exhaustively detailed, minutely fashioned, beautifully schemed bit of production design this side of Jack Fisk.

The nominees all have something going for them. The Artist and Hugo’s distinct but equally nostalgic looks at old Hollywood, both chock full of classic film references, are too filmic to pass up. Harry Potter has no history from which to draw – though it does have J.K. Rowling’s guidebook. Midnight in Paris has the advantage of interpreting the various haunts of 1920s Parisian celebrities. War Horse is, of course, the obligatory war effort – and the Academy loves a faded uniform.

In short, four of these, with the notable exception of War Horse (and that film is a Tintin apologist), take full advantage of a fantastic sort of wistfulness – for a bygone era, for J.K. Rowling to write again – and mistake that emotion for Art Direction.

That’s not to say that these aren’t deserving nominees (though it should be noted that the Costume Design category is a different beast altogether). The Artist, for example, with its classic theaters and Kane-like mansions, doesn’t have the sheer amount of art direction that Tinker Tailor does. Nor do any of these narratives (each and every one lesser stories than Tomas Alfredson’s film) present a scenario where the art actually overshadows plot.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy bleeds its art. The art direction looms over Gary Oldman’s George Smiley, frequently pushing him to the fringe of the frame. Production designer Maria Djurkovic imbues every frame with the gloomy 1970s, dominated by dull yellows and English earth tones that barely still hold any of the bold color of the Swinging ‘60s.

In Tinker Tailor, locations matter. Smiley and company don’t just hold their secret meetings in a room. They hold them in a busily patterned cave. Smiley and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) don’t convene in a hotel room. They meet clandestinely in a darkly textured and wallpapered, warmly furnished lair. The silver-lining is the hope that Oldman’s nomination breathes new life and finds a larger audience for the film – one that will want to look as much as watch.

Neal Dhand

3 Comments
  1. john paul says

    Can anyone tell me of the label or singer/band which performed the final musical statement of the song “La Mer”?I missed it in the final credits. Thanks JP

  2. Scott Patterson says

    I couldn’t agree more with you on this, Neal. Watching Tinker Tailor, it was amazing just how much life there was in the background, albeit bitten down, drab life. Not showy, but oddly beautiful.

  3. Bill Mesce says

    I think, in terms of award recognition, films like TINKER TAILOR can be victims of their own excellence. It’s the production design equivalent of a carefully modulated, internalized performance (think Heath Ledger in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) vs. a more visible virtuoso display (Al Pacino in anything from the last 15 years). Because the work doesn’t so obviously declare itself, you can easily miss just how deft it is.
    I think because TINKER TAILOR did do its job so well, did so perfectly capture that postwar/Cold War English drabness (think THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD; THE IPCRESS FILE; etc.) it looks too natural for Academy voters to appreciate how much work goes into presenting 1970s naturale.

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