Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy
When I first heard of this film back in 2011, I was rather excited to see it one day. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, spy drama, what could go wrong? Then I started hearing some things about it. Its word of mouth, while not horrible, also wasn’t the most flattering. “Boring” and “slow” were the two most frequent terms tossed around. It was therefore with frankly lowered expectations that I sat down to watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
George Smiley (Oldman) is a top level espionage man at MI6 (called “The Circus”) in the middle of the Cold War, but when his boss Control (Hurt) is forced out after a botched Budapest operation, so is Smiley. Not long after, though, the agency receives word from groundling Ricky Tarr (Hardy) that the long-circulating rumors of a top-level mole are true, and Smiley is brought out of retirement to investigate his former colleagues (Firth, Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik) with the help of young up-and-comer Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch).
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the title, refers to the code names given to those suspected to be the mole. But we don’t find this out until fairly well into the film, which gets at my biggest gripe of the movie. In all honesty, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could have started at the one hour mark and I probably would have gotten the same amount of information out of it. Told in alternating flashbacks and current scenes, the film doesn’t make this narrative structure clear in the slightest, so there is a great deal of jumbling of information. What, who’s he? What just happened? Why is he back at the office, I thought he was fired? The first hour is a rather maddeningly slow waltz of a whole bunch of characters that are nearly impossible to keep straight, who constantly talk and stare at one another, always thinking, always plotting, and doing relatively little. The second hour felt better to me, clearer, more gripping, and delivering more of a punch. There’s more action, I guess, but even the “thinking” scenes seemed more exciting than those from the first half. Having said that, however, the climax still felt cold and underwhelming. I suppose for a film that is all about the restraint of spies and not of James Bond-esque promiscuity, a quiet, clean, unfussed climax is fitting. But still, you’ve had me on the line for two hours, and the movie just… ends. Essentially. No one has really won. Excitement is not exactly there.
The film has a very distinct atmosphere. It is populated with browns and greys and blues, muted colors and dirty streets, and patterned wallpapers that nonetheless manage to blend into the background. It’s never sunny or clear. It rains a lot, and when it’s not raining, it’s a cloudy day and the wind is blowing uneasily. Few rooms are lit with lamps, instead letting in this gray, cold, steel-colored light from the outside. The film has a definite visual palette. The score is a good aural representation of this mood, never getting fast or frenzied, but almost always slow and melancholic. There’s a lot of silence in the soundtrack, just as there is a lot of silence in the dialogue. In fact, Gary Oldman doesn’t speak for the first few scenes he’s in. It’s a dreary world, the world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This rather goes along with the de-glamorization, if that’s a word, of the spy game. There is a nice touch at the end of the film where the sky and the lighting brighten for the first time now that the mole has been ousted, reflecting in a very subtle way the sense of justified satisfaction of the finale.
The cast is top notch and practically a who’s who of all the major adult roles in the various and sundry Harry Potter films (we had Sirius Black, Barty Crouch, Ollivander, the voice of Dobby, from what I can tell) but the leader is the banner star, Gary Oldman. Oldman managed to score his first (seriously, how has the dude not been nominated until 2011, what the hell is up with that?) Academy Award nomination for his role as George Smiley, and while I don’t know if it’s better than his previous work, I definitely know that Gary Oldman is always entertaining. His Smiley is an epitome of reservation. What works well is that Smiley is so utterly reserved, you are not sure (at least I wasn’t) if he could be the very spy he is supposed to be hunting. This is a man who reveals absolutely nothing, and you would believe him or any other of the government operatives capable of purposely leading a wild goose chase. He prefers to let people come to him, keeping an air of preternatural cool, almost encouraging others to open up their biggest secrets to him. His biggest monologue, where he recounts a face-to-face meeting with a Soviet mastermind, gets at the core of the whole message of the movie: that it kind of blows to be a spy. Smiley is weary and tired, although still persistent. Abandoned, alone, only surrounded by his colleagues, and even they are untrustworthy – this is no James Bond and Oldman clearly does not play him that way.
Standing alongside Oldman in most of the film is Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I have recently become increasingly familiar with. Cumberbatch is also very good as a right-hand man, but he still manages to portray the air of untrustworthiness. Will he crack? Can he be flipped? He echoes Oldman’s sense of loneliness in a heartbreaking sequence, and one of the only moments of raw emotion in the film. In it, Peter Guillam severs his romantic relationship because he knows it will put the other person in peril. Again, it is clear the spy world is a hard world to inhabit. (But really, I already knew that because Michael Westen has told me so.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is good, but only good. It’s not extraordinary. It’s too dense and too meandering to the ultimate detriment of itself. I’m all for intelligent films, but a completely disoriented audience is not what you want. It succeeds in its thriller aspirations, but it’s not as taut as it thinks it is and the ending feels like a deflated soufflé. The mood is oppressive, which is undoubtedly on purpose, but it’s not a very happy mood and will leave you feeling the distinct need to hug someone close to you. Is it a must-see? Frankly, I doubt it. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see it ousted from the next edition of 1001 Movies.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10. Interesting. But could have done more. (But I *will* add that in my search for photos to accompany this review, I was reminded of the pretty awesome cinematography it had... as evidenced by my inability to choose less than four shots.)