Pros: Gary Oldman's superb performance, good script, solid direction
Cons: Slow pace, some changes of focus from novel
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
(Note: A confirmed bug has made it impossible for me to MOVE this review to the Movies in Theater area where it should be. I am in the process of re-posting, formatting it in the new place. If it works I will be deleting this no later than 1/10/12 9 a.m. PST. Thanks for your understanding and I curse the epinions bug gremlins that make extra work for all of us.)
Click Here for Tinker Tailor Review please
is a cerebral spy thriller adapted from the dark 1974 John LeCarre (Spy Who Came In From the Cold) novel. It was made into an acclaimed 1979 mini-series starring Alec Guinness as LeCarre’s George Smiley (who appeared in at least 7 LeCarre novels). The new film directed by Tomas (Let the Right In-Swedish version) Alfredson is a non-sensationalistic, subdued somber toned film embracing the atmosphere of distrust, disenchantment and icy cynicism that made LeCarre’s novel a fascinating read. The cool subdued tone of the film’s narrative is supported by its photography that favors greys, browns and even a slightly grainy look to the film stock. It is set in 1973 (pre internet, cell-phone, computers, etc.).
It’s been superbly cast with Gary Oldman most prominent as George Smiley. Others include: John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones as supporting characters and a cast that includes several familiar faces (even though you might not know their names) Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong, Simon McBurney, Tom Hardy.
Oldman may not fit directly with the description of Smiley from LeCarre’s book who is a shorter man with short stubby legs—but he strikes the right looks and notes to pull it off. His performance is quiet, effective and flawless.
The pace is purposefully slow, methodical, careful, but unlike the 290 minute (John Irvin directed) mini-series things must be compressed into a 127 minute running time. The story is told differently than it is in the book of course but it comes off less like a who-done-it we in the audience have any chance of figuring out from what we are watching and more like a character study. This makes the movie seem too slow, dull and too long. It is not without its rewards however and Oldman’s performance is a thing to watch. For perhaps the first 20 minutes he deceptively seems to be doing little but blank facial gestures—yet just enough to tell us a few things about his character. Later, he build on this creating an original, powerful character quite different than Guiness’s Smiley.
This review has NO SPOILERS. The brief plot synopsis I write will reveal little past the first 10 minutes of the film. You can read all of this review without having key plot points revealed.
A secret meeting sends an British Secret Service operative to Budapest to meet a supposedly friendly operative who is supposed to reveal to him the name of the mole (double agent) who is one of the most trusted and top agents at the agency. The operation goes terribly wrong forcing the early retirement of Control (John Hurt), George Smiley, his right hand man (Gary Oldman) and a few others. However, the information that that there is a mole at the highest level within the agency means that George Smiley is reinstated to investigate. Who is the mole?
That’s the essence of the story. Some of the details are told in flashbacks as the investigation by Smiley takes place. Everyone, including Smiley himself is a possible suspect. No one can be trusted. And not everything is as it seems.
To reveal or write much about the machinations of the plot or investigation is to rob the film of its small but important surprises. It is in the little details that we learn specifics. It is watching intently for these details that creates the movie’s low-key suspense. We are immersed in the world of secrets, spies, espionage, treachery and spy agency politics.
There are several moments in this film you can read more into it, if you are so inclined. Early on, there is a brief perhaps 30 second sequence where George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is getting a new pair of prescription glasses. You might consider that Smiley needs to be able to see with a clear, fresh perspective for his new assignment. You don’t have to think about it at all of course, but it is the kind of movie that will probably stand up to second and third viewings to discover intricate details for those who wish to study the film. (some will undoubtedly say the film may be better the 2ndor 3rdviewing).
I do appreciate how the movie shows us things, rather than tells us. It uses some insider jargon… like calling the Intelligence Service, ‘the circus’ but never having a character explain the name. There is very little flash to this movie. The characters are the kind of spies and agents that are supposed to be fairly bland and blend into their surroundings, not stand out from anyone else so they can do their jobs very effectively. We don’t get many clever lines of dialogue. Oh there is treachery and some dry humor and more than one character has an over-active libido, but there’s no fast fancy cars, gadgets, feats of super-heroism going on anywhere. It’s as LeCarre intended, the anti-Bond. That said, it’s unfortunate the film doesn’t tell us what the title means. You may know it’s a reference to a popular English children’s rhyme:
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief.
But it’s never explained. It’s also easy to miss several little details and get confused by some things as you are watching also. The relationship Smiley has to his wife is different than in the book or in the mini-series, and she remains here, a very, very minor and almost completely un-seen character. Oldman’s Smiley may not be particularly sullen or depressed about the relationship as Guiness in his portrayal of Smiley most certainly was.
You also may not quite understand who ‘Karla’ is. LeCarre wrote what amounts to a ‘Karla and Smiley’ trilogy in his novels, Tinker Tailor being the first in 1974, The Honorable Schoolboy (1977) the second and Smiley’s People (1979) the last. It’s in the movie but with such light emphasis you might not realize what it’s about till nearly the end. No I won’t say more about it here.
Some characters are referred to as Americans, but that will probably confuse you because no one seems to be ‘American’ in the movie. You have to think about some things and make some connections yourself as the movie progresses. Most aren’t difficult and I was rarely confused, but since so many movies are dumbed down these days, you might be out of practice watching something like this.
If a slower paced, intelligent film with few visceral flashes, no big stunts, explosions, or chases, sounds refreshing to you, this should have lots of appeal to you. The disappointments and flaws are minor. There is however a few flashes of violence and the over-all tone is dark and cold. It’s not a ‘light’ entertainment—the characters are not adorable or likeable in any conventional way. It’s very dry, very British and in the end simply a smart spy story.
The tighter running time of this film means we lose several things from the novel and previous mini-series. We don’t realize that there are any female spies who have played an important role (like is established in the book). We don’t have paths that Smiley follows that are dead ends. He’s a bit too infallible in his investigation when there’s not a particularly reason for him to be. If he followed some leads that were dead ends we’d see his method of working, meticulous, led him to the truth (which is what happens in the book and mini-series).
The name actors in the cast are not given big splashy things to do. Everyone is excellent in their roles but there are no stand-outs except for Oldman’s Smiley. We can assume other characters have complexity, but we actually see it in Oldman’s performance. We spend more time with him than anyone else.
Respectably made with an absolutely brilliant performance by Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is intelligent, but unfortunately alternately dull and gripping. I certainly have to recommend it based on how well made it is and the performances but it’s very slow. You may want to see in theaters where you can focus on the big screen and you can’t do anything but watch what is happening. However if you are willing and able to commit to concentrate on a deliberately slow pace film at home, waiting for the DVD might be the best way to watch it. You can then go back and ‘study’ a scene or two if you are so inclined. 3 ½ but the script, direction and Oldman’s performance make it easy to call it a 4.