Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Directors: Tomas Alfredson
Screenplay: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan, John le Carre (novel)
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencick, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham.
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo, Alexandra Ferguson.
Country: UK/France/Germany
Running Time: 127 min
Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: R

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes with a lot of impressive credentials: it’s based on a best-selling novel by John le CarrĂ©, it’s helmed by the director of a successful Swedish vampire movie, a previous mini-series adaptation of the book is fondly remembered (at least by people of a certain generation) and it has one of the best British casts in recent memory. The possibility of utter disappointment looms over it like a cloud. But it thankfully proves that a film with such hype behind it going in can completely deliver.

Set during the Cold War, Gary Oldman plays ex-MI6 agent George Smiley who is brought out of retirement to help uncover a mole planted by the Russians years ago.

It’s perhaps understandable the trailers sold the film as a lot more of an all-out thriller than it actually is. The trouble, though, is it might draw in audiences who are expecting something faster paced when in reality this is much slower than you might expect. However, it’s never once dull or boring, taking its time to build a quiet suspense and anticipation which gives it a palpable energy, a fascinating heartbeat.

Tomas Alfredson impresses mightily here with his latest feature after the fabulous Let the Right One In. He, along with screenwriters Peter Straughan (The Men Who Stare At Goats) and Bridget O’Connor (Sixty Six), takes this potentially overly complicated story and brings it all together with a certain sleekness which helps to give the film its overall handsome feel. Although most definitely a spy film, this is not James Bond. As if on purpose it’s almost entirely devoid of the action-filled tropes of the Bond franchise (many guns are seen but rarely used). That’s definitely a good thing – this is a story which doesn’t need action to make it interesting or exciting.

A tremendous attention to detail means the film never once treats its audience like idiots, trusting implicitly that you can keep up with every single one of the many secretive discussions held throughout the film, with tons of names thrown around which you are expected to remember for later on. It’s quite reminiscent of David Fincher’s Zodiac in that it hits you with a barrage of information and expects you not to lag behind in understanding. And rightly so. This is complex stuff – technically and morally – and it’s so refreshing to see a film (especially one getting as much press and exposure as this) not holding your hand while walking through the fog. It’s ambiguous in the best of ways, reaching the level of intrigue but not frustration. It’s left up to you decide what certain things could mean, even down to things like crucial character motivations. It understands that life isn’t simple, especially the type of life it depicts, and doesn’t go out of its way to tie everything up with a neat bow.

The film is understated but still shocking when it needs to be, and even the latter (infrequent) moments serve a clear purpose and aren’t just there for the sake of it, in order to spice up the proceedings. There’s plenty of intrigue in the abundant mystery to hold attention. It all unfolds like a jigsaw puzzle being solved: at first it looks like a huge jumble but as the pieces of the puzzle get put together the overall picture becomes clearer. And most importantly it feels like you’re the one completing the jigsaw.

Next up the cast. There are wonderful performances across the board, as if that even needs to be said. Where do you even start? I suppose it has to be with Gary Oldman, who puts in one of his best ever performances (that’s especially impressive given the career Oldman has had), one which should bag him his first ever Oscar nomination (yes, really) and there’s a good chance he may win, too. It’s very nice to see him take center stage when he’s so often supporting others, bringing a quiet, aged wisdom and inherent likability to the role of George Smiley.

However, the film is arguably as much an ensemble piece as it is a showcase for Oldman. The likes of Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s modern day Sherlock Holmes), Mark Strong and David Dencik are all fantastic in their respective roles, each getting their own times to shine at different points throughout. Once the “who is the spy?” plot point is introduced you start to look at each of them with distrustful eyes, sure one minute that a certain character is the mole before another does something out of sorts and your suspicions turn to them. Trust no one, suspect everyone.

The score by Alberto Iglesias (The Skin I Live In) is subtle yet memorable, helping to give the film its pulse. And the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hotyema (reuniting with his Let the Right One In director) is soft, easy on the eyes, and goes a long way to capturing the Cold War time period, so much so that it often feels like it was genuinely made all those years ago.

If the film lacks anything it’s emotionality. There’s no doubt you care for these characters – although that’s perhaps down to the skill of the performances – but the film keeps you at a distance throughout meaning you might not be entirely emotional invested. But there’s a sense that that’s entirely the point, that you’re supposed to be looking at it with objective eyes, judging these character’s actions, spying on the events yourself. In the end what we have here is a good old-fashioned grown up drama-thriller, doing what it does rather brilliantly. A fantastic convergence of talent on all fronts.

This review was first published at TwitchFilm.net upon the film’s UK release.

9 Comments

  1. If you’re going to make the effort to carve out the time this would definitely be worth it. I cannot wait to see it again when it hits Blu-ray (which is about the middle of next month here in the UK).

    Reply
  2. I can’t believe the UK release is coming up. I’ve put this on my wish list. Hopfully hubby knows how to work the internet enough to figure out how to import this. :)

    And I reviwed the miniseries a few weeks ago. Also worth checking out.

    Reply
  3. I thought this was great, but at the same time was underwhelmed by it. I think the problem was (if you can call it a problem) that it was exactly as I expected. I expected a slow moving, handsome looking political thriller with some great performances and that’s what I got. I know that sounds like a ridiculous complaint about the film, but it threw up no surprises so I thought it was very good, but it’s just brimming under my top ten of the year when perhaps it should have been higher.

    Does anyone know what I mean or am I being an idiot?

    The emotional detachment you mention in your review might be the real reason behind my not quite loving it as much as I thought I should though.

    Also Kathy Burke was awful and stands out like a sore thumb against everyone else. She’s got a tiny role though so it doesn’t affect the film very much.

    Reply
  4. @David

    That’s precisely how I felt about J. Edgar, though my expectations weren’t quite as high. For me, a film that looks great – or, perhaps, has the foundation of a film that should be great – often leaves me with a sense of disappointment even if it delivers. I think there’s just some part of me that always wants to be blown away, even when my expectations are quite lofty, and not being blown away leaves me feeling … I don’t know … empty, maybe.

    Does that make sense? Or is that just more confusing?

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  5. The movie is not so much about process as is about inevitability. Hell, if you squint your eyes while watching, it’s a movie about Smilely justifying to himself and his superiors about getting his old job back on his terms. Even scarier would be if he somehow engineered his firing to be re-hired on his own terms.

    I look at this film less about the nuts and bolts of procedure and plot, and more about the decaying mood of the spygame in the UK in the middle of the Cold War, 1973. And it does a mighty job of executing this.

    One of the best of the year. Even if you were bored, this movie remains impressive.

    Reply

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