The odd thing was the two movies I saw could not have been more different from each other. Saturday night was earmarked for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, followed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on Sunday afternoon. In fact, after I was done watching the latter movie I couldn't help thinking they were calling the wrong movie A Game of Shadows.
What was even odder, however, is that two days later, I'm starting to see some similarities. And I'm not talking about the obviously British setting, in fact, both movies also travel half-way across Europe.
Most importantly, both exist in a world now swallowed by the past and astonishingly both evoke that lost world with such delicate and adroit detail, so much so that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is continuously suffused with a sense of nostalgia and intense yearning.
What they both have in common is also the intrigue, the game of cat-and-mouse, the outwitting of an ideological enemy coupled with a sense of respect, even awe for that enemy's abilities.
While the character embodied by Robert Downey, Jr. is a far cry from the original man with the violin, tobacco pipe, deerstalker and steel-trap mind, there is in parts a trace of the science of deduction that Holmes applied with such finesse. However, I must say I preferred the actor who played Moriarty with such a perfect cold sneer behind an erudite veneer.
On the other hand, Gary Oldman's unsmiling George Smiley is a tired and semi-retired spy turned detective, hunting down a mole planted by his 'arch-enemy', the enigmatic Soviet spymaster Karla.
In a sense, both men are more-or-less singlehandedly trying to stall the outbreak of a world war, though the anachronistic bomb explosions in the Sherlock movie are nowhere near as scary as the leaky cauldron of secrets that is the British intelligence agency in the face of the Cold War.
And while Holmes has his loyal companion and best friend in Dr. Watson played by a genuinely funny Jude Law reluctantly tagging along 'one last time', the banter between the two characters and the chemistry between the two actors accounting for most of the entertainment the film provides, Smiley has his dependably sharp and intrepid young protege, Peter Guillam portrayed with a callow vulnerability by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch who I'm justifiably beginning to have a major crush on.
I also spent a lot of time admiring the languorous beauty of the Victorian world that Holmes and Watson traipse around in. This smoky, overcast, almost dingy vision of London is so beautifully and painstakingly rendered that I can't help but determine that this is to be the exact setting for the stories in my mind when I next read them.
Sadly, the movie is only a fraction of what it could have been. I sat through it the whole time thinking what it would have been like without the naughty innuendo and the grating slow motion fisticuffs and well, the surprising lack of suspense.
At the diametrically opposite end of the spectrum lay Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Now, this film builds up suspense like no spy thriller you've ever seen. Unlike other stylised spy movies, this one has effectively three gunshots and one made me flinch as the blood splattered the grubby wall covered with flowery wallpaper while another underlined who loved whom and who betrayed whom.
It's a film you watch with your body and mind on high alert. This is a world of secrets and lies, illusions and half-truths, misplaced loyalties and unexpected betrayals. Here spies aren't flashy like James Bond or Ethan Hunt, but deceptively quiet watchers and whisperers, their espionage involving coded telegrams and tapped telephones rather than car-chases and hand-to-hand combat.
I can almost imagine Holmes nodding his head in approval of the inobtrusively stolid and cerebral mystery-solving Smiley, an infinitely better successor to Holmes than the brawling wisecracking ruffian that Downey plays. I have absolutely no doubt which movie Holmes himself would choose to watch.
After coming out of the cinema hall on Sunday afternoon, stepping into the cheerful winter sunlight, I shivered a little certainly not from the cold weather, mostly thankful that I wasn't around in the days of the Cold War.
While the idea that history repeats itself lies at the muddled core of the Sherlockian adventure, a lesson that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy chillingly imparts inspite of its gentle nostalgia is that the past really is a foreign country, and one should explore it carefully.