You might think that a spy film needs action, explosions and cheeky banter. But silence is golden, and it has proven to be just as much a part of the genre as our more entrenched expectations of the espionage flick. The silent spy is on the rise.
This is perhaps most evident in the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where a former MI6 agent is tasked with finding a traitor within his own ranks. Facial expressions speak volumes, and the emphasis is as much on the characters’ humanity as it is on them being spies, with their own anxieties constantly being put aside as they hunt for the traitor amongst their colleagues (and friends). In a time of stretched loyalties, it is repressed emotions and words unspoken that reign supreme.
The 2006 German film The Lives of Others is very similar in that it features an unlikely hero (a Stasi agent) being pushed to do incredibly difficult things in 1980s East Germany, back when one’s every move was monitored by the Secret Police. It’s very strongly acted and it’s portrayal of a complex world where one could never reveal one’s true motivations out of fear is brilliantly observed.
This is echoed by this year’s Shadow Dancer, where an IRA agent is tracked down by MI5 and asked to become an informant, or risk losing her son. This slow-burning drama, with emotions constantly simmering underneath the surface, is a thrill to watch.
It seems that we are going backwards as much as forwards in order to find inspiration for the genre’s direction, into the murk of 1970s espionage as much as in explosive noughties thrills and allowing real people’s vulnerabilities to surface, as well as the dilemmas they face. Could this mean that the future of the spy genre lies in silence and subtlety rather than in crash-bang-wallop?
Only time will tell, but for now the silent spy is settling in nicely next to the super humans, capable of accomplishing acts just as significant as those of any Bond or Bourne. A great balance of emotion and action is currently being struck, and long may it continue.