Score by Alberto Iglesias
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
I walked in about 30 seconds late, in the interest of full disclosure. Walking in on a violent scene that sets the stage for the entire rest of the film, and resonates throughout it, I was pleased to discover very little music, and certainly none of the perpetual motion orchestral cliches that have become such an expectation in films with action (the expectation for them has become so high that I am forced to sit up and listen when they don’t appear). Over the next five minutes, we become aware that both composer and director have the gift of patience; throughout a brilliantly unfolding title sequence with basically no dialogue, composer Alberto Iglesias gives us a proper overture, introducing motifs that are used throughout the film as well as brilliantly underscoring the very mundane comings and goings of George Smiley, our protagonist. Make no mistake - this is the Cold War, and not only is the loyalty of individuals in question, but the very concept of loyalty at all. And by the end of title sequence, the plaintive clarinet melody, relaxed ride cymbal and padded, tense strings have firmly established this fact, ambiguous bitonal harmonies placing the audience not quite at ease but slightly on edge. (That’s the least we the audience can manage, given the characters appear to subsist only on information, cigarettes, and liquor and seem to bask in that unease). Iglesias switches modes a few times during the overture, and one finds the transitions a bit jarring - while he composes well in each style, whether that style is “plaintive cool jazz with strings,” “spare piano with even more spare orchestration,” or “”action movie minimalism,” there are some moments where the layering comes across as tentative, if not messy. Working with a palette of brass, clarinet, guitar, bass small string orchestra, jazz kit and some tasteful synthesizers, Iglesias has a truly wide range of sounds at his disposal, many of which he uses without employing anything especially flashy that might disrupt the immersion crucial to enjoying this film. Iglesias has composed the music for most of Pedro Almodovar’s oeuvre and while his lushness for those films is somewhat restrained in this context, his harmonic sense and his overall sensitivity is on full display here, the same continental angst informing the orchestral layering. All impressions from the overture remained true through the rest of the film - great overall mood, few memorable moments (with one or two exceptions) and a bit of fumbling when it comes time to change the mood up.
The title sequence, however, feels like both director and composer laying all cards on the table at once - both intend to be consistent, dammit, and it is that consistency that will make it a great film. They’re half right. While the visuals benefit greatly from confident directing and pacing (and the film, without being decadent, is quite a cinematographic treat), the score suffers a bit from its single-minded ambience, as we see almost the entire range of the score by the time the title sequence is through, give or take a couple of scenes with songs underscoring them. The most obvious answer for this is that the sequence follows George Smiley, our protagonist, and while he speaks very little during the film, we are seeing the world of MI6, “The Circus” as it is referred to in the film, through his eyes, filtered through his experience. It would make sense for the music primarily to reflect his cynicism and familiarity with this world, and in that the score is incredibly successful. The noticeable slips in the score are when the film follows other characters, either temporarily or for extended sequences. There are two points in which we follow characters through flashbacks and the score gives us basically no indication that these characters are not all figments of Smiley’s imagination, instantly assimilating any new musical ideas into his uneasy world of padded string chords and breathy clarinet melodies. Alternately, when the film ramps up its pacing in small but noticeable amounts, we are given the dreaded cliches of rolling string arpeggios, still restrained but coming almost completely out of left field in the context of the film’s soundtrack. The film’s final scene is set to Julio Iglesias’ version of La Mer and is a near-ruinous mistake, especially given that up until that point the only songs appearing in the film was diegetic, with sources within the film. It almost seemed as though the composer simply gave up on the climax of the film, realizing perhaps that in light of all that came before, scoring such a thing might be impossible.
One key scene that demonstrates the successes here is the first really extended monologue we get to hear from Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Speaking right at the audience (to an off-screen Benedict Cumberbatch), he is drunk, easily a half a pack of cigarettes into the night and relaying a story that grows in coherence and significance as he tells it, once huge pauses between words and phrases becoming smaller and more uniform as he realizes what he’s saying. A lesser composer, or perhaps just a different one, would attempt to establish and regulate a mood going into this scene; Iglesias, perhaps feeling he understands both actor and character well enough, decides to go toe-to-toe with Oldman, letting the score breath with him and work around and underneath his lines. It’s truly a remarkable demonstration, among a score full of excellent observations to offer about its taciturn main character and the psyche that allows him to keep at what he does. The film offers some hints as to how both the life and the politics of espionage work chew people up and spit them out, meeting in soundproof standalone cells in the center of the office, or spending hours in an unventilated room with only cigarettes and a microfilm. For persisting as long as he has, Smiley, as he is portrayed here, is somewhat of an exception. The score certainly treats him as such.