I am overwhelmed and privileged to be screening 12 YEARS A SLAVE at the Chicago International Film Festival right now.
I was really surprised and disappointed not to see “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” in the Best Costume Design category this year. More than any other film, the clothes on display are integral in telling the story. The film, based on the novel by John le Carré and multi-part miniseries, condenses a large amount of exposition to elevate the tensions and betrayals between characters.
The costumes fill in the personalities and histories of characters. For instance, Control (John Hurt) often insults Toby Esterhase’s background, giving him the code name “Poor Man” because Rich Man would be “inappropriate.” Yet, Esterhase is the most stylishly dressed of the Circus high command with his tailored three piece suits, bow ties, and accompanying pipe. The costumes convey Esterhase’s need for acceptance and his tendency to over compensate for his humble beginnings, a weakness that is exploited by the mole.
In other ways costumes quietly, but importantly add urgency to scenes. Without noticing, every scene with Gary Oldman’s masterful George Smiley feels like an interrogation where time is quickly running out for the other character. Oldman’s stillness and intensity raise the stakes, but so do the costumes. Smiley almost never takes off his signature trench coat. An odd suit of armor, Smiley’s trench coat make me attuned to his movements because at any point in the conversation, he could get up and leave. He’s never settled, never truly comfortable, always on the lookout, always ready to act. It also makes him more of an outsider and detached; exactly the kind of person able to catch the unsuspecting mole.
Next there’s Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a medium level intelligence gatherer and loyal soldier to Smiley. Guillam breaks with much of the Circus style conventions, opting for slimming fits and bright colors. Guillam takes Colin Firth’s Bill Haydon proper British gentleman style and adds a bit more flair. What could the costumes be insinuating? Perhaps his style clues us into Peter’s personal life. Or its curious that Guillam dresses like he would fit in well with Haydon and Esterhase, but is remarkably dedicated to Smiley.
Last and my favorite is Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr. From the first moment you see Ricky, clad in a bomber jacket, jeans, and multi-patterned shirt you think he is the farthest from Special Intelligence officer. And he is incredibly incompetent, but well meaning. Tarr’s casualness sets a strong contrast to Peter and makes us wary of his implied recklessness. All this tells us more about Smiley, setting him as the one person in the Circus who sees beyond appearances and facades to the truth. The costumes in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” are wonderfully precise, rooted in character, and beautiful to behold.