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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

Archives in the Movies: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

It shouldn't be surprising how much records and documentation factor into certain genres. Urban and high fantasy needs to justify the monsters and magic, procedural shows of the crime and medical type need evidence and background histories, and spy thrillers need information in all its forms.

Adapted from the 1974 novel of the same name by the late John le Carré (who has a brief cameo), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), directed by Tomas Alfredson, follows "retired" agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) as he hunts for a Russian double agent in the top echelons of The Circus, a stand-in for British Intelligence equivalent to MI6. Set during the early 1970s, the film is steeped in a world where the only valuable currency is information. Every operative and agent knows they're only as good as the intelligence they obtain and the cost of bad intel is usually their life.

From the beginning of the film it's clear that information, specifically in the form of archived documentation, carries the most weight within the Circus. The audience is treated to a ride up the records elevator, a small dumbwaiter within the main building, as information is literally passed between analysts, agents, and high-ranking officers. It's a motif that comes up multiple times that simultaneously establishes the geography of the building but also the passive, almost cold nature of gathered intelligence. It exists to be utilized, but how it's used has no bearing on the information itself.

And while there are a plethora of scenes where records are featured, one of the more intense moments within the film occurs in the Circus' archives. After discovering suspected double agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) in his house, Smiley tasks his most trusted agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), with retrieving a log book from the archives that may or may not corroborate Tarr's plea of innocence. What follows is a short, but stressful mini-heist involving a car repair shop, some sleight of hand, and Guillam's satchel.

Guillam (Cumberbatch) in the Archives

It is interesting that we don't actually know the scene takes place in the archives until one of the clerks answers the phone and specifically states the department as "Archives". Prior to the scene, Smiley and Guillam refer to the department as the Registry. Maybe it's a British Intelligence thing or just a mixing of terminology that's explained in the book, but it's only ever called the archives in that one specific moment. Visually, however, it reads as an archives given the rows upon rows of stacks filled with files covering multiple floors. It's every spy's dream and worst nightmare with all those potential secrets lying in wait to be useful or cause tremendous harm.

What I do enjoy most about the archives mini-heist is Guillam's impatience as he tries to look like he isn't waiting for something to happen. Given the quasi-open space of the archives, anyone on the opposite side of the room could've been observing this supposedly trained intelligence officer waffling around trying not to be conspicuous.

I'm also unsure of is how the archives operates on an administrative level. Guillam signs in with the clerks, has his bag checked in, and tells them what he's looking for in the archives, they tell him where he needs to go and then he's off on his merry way. I know there's a certain level of trust that goes with being an agent in the Circus, but if the clerks basically need to know exactly what you're looking for, why don't they go with you or retrieve it themselves? And where is the archivist? Is there an archivist? Well, there isn't one featured in the film, at least not directly, but now I'm wondering if there was one in the book or in the 1979 television adaptation. Either way, the mechanics of the Registry/Archives is odd given the severity of what awaits Guillam if he's caught.

Other than that it's a decent film with all of the most well known male British actors at the time, so enjoy yourself and bask in the bisexual energy of Colin Firth gazing longingly into Mark Strong's eyes. You've earned it.


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