Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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.)


  1. I got the feeling this was exactly the kind of film the film makers intended to make when they set out to do it. It's meant to be confusing - it was a long time into the book before I had any idea what was going on - but the confusing nature is definitely a flaw with the film, and one that I cannot overlook. Oh, and you missed Aberforth Dumbledore from your Potter cast list, he's unrecognisably played by Ciaran Hinds. Love the cast and look of this film, just wish it had been a bit more entertaining.

    1. DAMMIT I MISSED ONE!!! GAH!!! I've only seen the final HP film once, though. Dagnabit, I forgot about Ciaran Hinds...

      Like I said, I like intellectual films, but this movie is too obtuse for its own good. A mystery is worthwhile, but completely flabbergasting your audience is not the best idea.

  2. When I was reviewing the 2011 Oscar nominees I ultimately decided that this film wasn't quite good enough for me to recommend. I'd have it at 2.5 stars (it's okay).

    I agree that Oldman does a great job in the film. I think he got a nomination precisely because he was playing against his "type" of the manic, edgy character. I also agree that Cumberbatch does a good job.

    Unfortunately, the film's reveal was ruined for me before a single second of it was shot. The casting kills any suspense on who the mole is. Let's see, the four suspects are played by a Swedish actor no one knows, two character actors...and an Academy Award winning actor. Gee, I wonder which one gets the meaty role of the double agent?

    When asked about this Firth defended the casting by saying that everyone already knows who the mole is from either having read the book or seeing the original film with Alec Guiness. Well, I had done neither and I suspect I am far from alone.

    1. Ha ha ha! Chip, I think you think too much about movies! Sit back and enjoy the ride, man! (I kid, I kid)

      In all seriousness, I didn't figure it out, but that's probably partly because I haven't seen nearly as many films as you have.

      Oh, and Firth is nuts if he thinks that everyone already knows who the mole is. I hadn't ever heard of this story before the movie.

    2. I've been told I'm "not normal" when it comes to figuring out the twists or reveals in movies. The thing is, I have only twice in my life tried to do that very thing. I used to always score very high on the pattern recognition tests (i.e. "what's the next number in the sequence"), so my best guess is my brain just picks up on patterns without thinking about it. In the case of the casting, though, that's from many years of watching TV shows. When a murder would be committed and there was one actor/actress on for this episode that I recognized from having been on other shows, it always turned out that this person was playing the killer. Some shows (like Castle early on) actually used to cast multiple familiar faces and use them as misdirects for the real killer. It's one of the things that made me like Castle early on.

      In case you are curious, the two films where I tried to figure out the twist were The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense. I was not successful with the former. I had actually forgotten that there was going to be a twist in The Sixth Sense, but I paused the movie about an hour in to get a snack. While in my kitchen I remembered there was going to be a twist and while waiting I started reviewing the movie. This was about ten minutes after the classic "I see dead people" line. All of a sudden I remembered the beginning of the film and in a flash I got it. At first I didn't believe it, but as I ran through the rest of the film to that point I realized that it had been very cleverly handled by Shyamalan.

      Some day I will do a Twists I Didn't Figure Out category. The Crying Game, Widow's Peak (which I've already reviewed), and Unbreakable would be three of them.

    3. Yeah, that makes sense, if one is very adept at seeing patterns, why shouldn't one see those same patterns in storytelling mediums?

      I would be VERY interested in your list of Twists I Didn't Figure Out. Unbreakable was very good, I liked that one quite a bit.

      I'm up to the beginning of season 4 in Castle. The ending of season 3 was AMAZING.

    4. This is literally one of my late 2010 originally brainstormed categories that I have never done. When I did it I jotted down the following: The Crying Game, Shattered, Widow's Peak, Unbreakable, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Conversation, and Saw. Dead Again had two big reveals, neither of which I saw coming. When I get ready to do it for real I will try to more thoroughly think through movies I've seen for any I can add.

      I noted that I did figure out The Sixth Sense, The Village, The Usual Suspects, and Fight Club. The last one I mostly figured out from the trailer (and I can now add Shutter Island and Derailed to ones where the trailer was enough.)

      "I'm up to the beginning of season 4 in Castle. The ending of season 3 was AMAZING."

      I agree. Wait until you get to the end of Castle season 4... (He says with a grin.)

  3. I described this film as guys sitting around and thinking cinematically. While I found the plot interesting, that was about all I found interesting here. 7/10 is perhaps generous except for the exceptional cast and the (as you mention) gorgeous cinematography.

    1. "Thinking cinematically"

      Wow, yes, right on, fantastic way to describe this film!

      I mean, I liked this film. I did. But it wasn't... special.

  4. Agree with everything you said. I wavered for a long time between the 7 and the 8 and ended up going for the later because I couldn't stop thinking about the film after it was over. The disjointed plot did annoy me mightily during the first half of watching the film. I had also heard bad things about this and was prepared to be bored. Perversely, maybe that also made me like it more than I otherwise would have.

    1. "couldn't stop thinking about the film"

      I always consider that the mark of an impressive film, so you don't need to explain your higher rating for this one. If a film can worm its way into one's head, it's usually a good thing.

      Expectations are always critical in viewing a film. If you're anticipating something spectacular, even a very good film could be a letdown, but if you're expecting poo on screen, you'd be impressed with something mediocre.