Written by UTG critic Grace Duffy, Scene & Heard takes a look at the music that makes our favorite films so memorable. Whether it’s the 400-piece orchestra Christopher Nolan used for The Dark Knight, or the dozen or so bands that contributed to the soundtrack of Top Gun, there is no denying the impact music has on movies and this column hopes to highlight the best of the best.
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As a natural corollary to my take on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this week’s ‘Scene and Heard’ takes a look at the music that scores Tomas Alfredson’s contemporary classic of British cinema. Composed by Alberto Iglesias, the score is restrained and moody, just as disillusioned and burdened as the characters who dominate the mystery onscreen. It’s measured and classy, in keeping with an era when such class and substance were the very epitome of British life, creating a dignified musical accompaniment to a story that vacillates from tedium to tenterhooks.
The opening track is named for the lead character and hero of the affair, “George Smiley.” It’s suitably understated and tentative, coming across as a meticulously executed period piece to suit the mood evoked so well onscreen. It is, generally, a bit world-weary and beaten down to match its namesake, with a slightly muted and lethargic lead motif that hints at Smiley’s greatness as well as his personal struggle. He is unappreciated at home by his absent wife and nonchalantly driven from his post onscreen, a dual tragedy that the piece reflects upon though never fully indulges. There’s an icy hint of piano to underscore the frenetic nature of the intelligence network, while the main refrain waxes and wanes to evoke his conviction and eventual triumph as much as the difficulties of his changing world. Parts of this piece play during the opening credits when Smiley and Control get their marching orders from the Circus, and it could accordingly be interpreted as a kind of swansong. The image of a distressed Guillam wordlessly watching them leave seems to tie in with the stark reality here presented.
Smiley’s theme sets a certain tone for the score, keeping everything just as tired and discoloured as the story itself. Its subtleties and discretions are masterful, setting a watchful as opposed to insistent air, and it wisely refrains from adding too much to an already complex story. Yet, it does allow itself moments to breathe. Tracks named for Polyakov, the rogue Soviet attaché, and Ricki Tarr’s ill-fated romance with the elusive Irina offer a little more electricity to an otherwise intensely guarded affair.
“Polyakov” is exciting, with currents of backing music coursing dangerously through fragments of sporadic strings. It’s dramatic and alluring, with a prescient darkness mimicking the unknowns in the titular character’s history. The spark and thrill of danger is ever-present but it’s also presented as something more enigmatic, compulsive and manipulative. Musical moments such as this are more in keeping with the traditional spy thriller, scoring something malevolent and sublime. However, the focus on Polyakov’s inauspicious presence is characteristic of the film’s take on the genre. There is excitement and intensity, but also a very real and indefinable threat lurking in the mire – it isn’t all gadget wizardry and shootouts, it’s watching, waiting, and agonising over the tiniest minute details. Le Carré’s books benefit most from his background in the British Intelligence Service by their painfully realistic evocation of the day-to-day boredom of the job – a trend this track at once captures and maligns.
“Tarr and Irina” is the only track that lets itself run free, reflecting the feelings and passion of the characters for which it’s named. It isn’t bolted down by expectation or responsibility and its pained, unfulfilled romantic piano music is full of genuine emotion and a wistful yearning for freedom.
Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and nemesis Karla gets a particularly intriguing musical tribute. The lead notes are icy, nebulous, and flimsy, evaporating even as they’re played on whispering instruments. Tellingly, these instruments differ to those for other tracks on the score. A barely-there bass and harp match the character’s faceless yet tangible presence, while the later entrance of a string section adds a more dramatic dimension as the story is unravelled onscreen and Smiley recalls his one awe-inspiring meeting with the man. It builds and builds before stopping short in a sharp ending that seems to recall how tersely the legendary figure slipped through his fingers. Smiley is almost haunted by this one encounter, and it is telling that his onscreen recollections, which prove pivotal to the unravelling of the affair, mark the one moment in which he truly opens up to Guillam.
Iglesias’s work on this score is seamless, a perfect complement to the masterwork onscreen. It teeters between moments of aimless imaginings and grating crescendos, with a palpable physical presence that lingers at all times. Its lengthier offerings serenade the unfolding of the saga, with little waves of strings acting as glimmers of tension; harps plucking in time with each discovery, and percussion adding literal weight and gravitas to solemn proceedings. It is a vivid rendering of the era in which the story is set, with its poignant keys adding a human and fragile air to the undercurrents of suspicion and doubt. Espionage is the name of the game but at the heart of all this there are groups of men bound together irrevocably, and their beliefs, thoughts, and feelings undergo as many tragedies as triumphs.