A film review by Craig J. Koban February 1, 2012

Rank:  #21 


2011, R, 127 mins.


Smiley: Gary Oldman / Control: John Hurt / Bill Haydon: Colin Firth / Roy Bland: Ciaran Hinds / Percy Alleline: Toby Jones / Toby Esterhase: David Dencik

Directed by Tomas Alfredson / Written by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John Le Carre.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is an espionage thriller that, unlike so many other examples of the genre, is not at all concerned with mindless action and ostentatious pyrotechnics.  There is not much in the way of fisticuffs, gun battles, car or foot chases, and other customary accoutrements of the spy film to be found here.  TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY gives us a portal into the world of high stakes intelligence work as it most likely is in reality.  Instead of having muscle-bound super hero/agents that defy gravity or are impervious to pain, this film has grizzled, world weary, and melancholic men in the autumns of their respective lives that, despite their outward meager appearances, are shrewd Cold Warriors and cognitive tacticians. 

That’s the intoxicating hook to TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: it seems more or less grounded in a gritty veracity where pudgy, middle-aged, and chain smoking men decide the fate of their nations while guilelessly working through leads, misdirection, deception, outright betrayal, and ultimately their own lingering doubts and paranoia.  Action is almost a cursory element in the film (there’s so little actual action in it that the film could aptly be described as motionless at times); rather, the film is about maintaining loyalty while trying to uncover the deepest layer of disloyalty from within and the very process that is required to uncover said unfaithfulness.  TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY, as a direct result, lingers so much more as a chillingly cerebral experience than a visceral one, which makes it stand out apart from the pack. This is not the world of Jason Bourne or James Bond; covert affairs have never been as deglamorized as it is here. 

The film is based on the very famous and cherished 1974 spy novel of the same name by John Le Carre, which in turn was adapted into a critically lauded 1979 BBC TV series that featured Sir Alec Guinness.  Certainly, adapting such a jigsaw puzzle-like narrative from the book and, in turn, appropriating elements of a densely convoluted television series is a daunting task, but screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan appear to take all of the narrative complexities of both works and successfully pare them down to a manageable two-hour plus film.  What the film shares with its antecedents is their core themes of the convolution of information and intelligence gathering and how reliable versus unreliable information is so thorny to navigate through. 

The mind-bending story is set in London of the early 1970’s and follows the manhunt for a Soviet double agent that actually has placed himself within the top of the British secret service, MI6 (or called “The Circus” in the film) whose existence is revealed when his ouster and MI6 head, Control (John Hurt) dies.   Expected to head up the investigative task force is George Smiley (played by Guinness in the series, now played by Gary Oldman), a former agent that was previously forced into an early retirement.  Smiley believes that the spy hides in plain sight and could be any one of four specific men in charge: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).  Realizing that uncovering the real identity of the spy would prove to be impossible while working directly with these men, Smiley is forced to use more clandestine and outside-the-box methods and recruits a small team that has no direct ties to Circus operatives.  Very slowly and very gradually, Smiley is able to use his cunning wits and keen eye for deductive logic to follow specific clues that eventually allow for him to correctly deduce the identity of the mole, but simply apprehending him alone will not do (at risk of not only his life, but the lives of those in his party): he opts to engage in a meticulous plan to trap his prey while staying alive long enough to do so. 



Smiley is one of the most compelling spies I’ve ever seen in a film.  He’s intriguing not by what he does, but rather by what he seemingly does not do.  He’s not a man of outward action; he’s an introverted, cold, calculating, and painstaking observer of human nature.  He never antagonizes his prey head-on, but rather sits back, watches, examines, and waits for just the right moment to clutch his intended targets.  It’s of crucial importance that Smiley is a very paltry and unassuming looking individual; his gifts are not his physical might or dexterity.  He flies in under the radar by using his cunning intellect first and foremost, which actually makes him that much more inconspicuously dangerous to his enemies. 

Gary Oldman is key to the success of this character.  He has been an actor that has made a career of playing larger-than-life and sometimes freakishly grandiose personalities.  Overplaying Smiley would have been a disastrous miscalculation, but the typically boisterous and audacious Oldman reigns himself in to play his secret agent as a man of few (and I do mean few) words with a quietly internalized intensity.  Watching him battle wits with the film’s uniformly strong  cast of acting titans like Hinds, Hurt, Firth, Jones, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy (the latter two have small, but significant supporting roles) is the film’s real delightful pleasure.  Witnessing this frail looking, trench coat wearing, and thick-rimmed-bespectacled man intimidate those around him with merely his stillness and a sternly distrusting glance creates most of the tension in the film. 

Thomas Alfredson – who previously made LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, one of the greatest of the recent vampire-centric films – makes his English-language debut here with TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and his evocation of early 70’s London is superbly intoxicating.  The film’s pale sepia and grey hued color palette does wonders to recreate its shadowy UK locales with a sinister and detached edge, which only heightens the film’s narrative themes of moral and ethical uncertainty.  What’s even more impressive is what Alfredson does with his tight and enclosed spaces in the film, which are dark, desolate, frequently smoke-filled, and hauntingly claustrophobic.  This is not a picturesque travelogue of the finest London sights; portraying the suffocating insular world of the secret agents is what motivates Alfredson.  It’s no wonder all of these guys look so morose and defeated; they always seems to work in damp, confined, and decaying office spaces, check points and safe houses. 

Much has been said of the pretzel-like nature of the film’s unyieldingly dense and layered plot, which, to be fair, is a source of the film’s weakness and strength.  Being quite virginal to the source material, I found myself baffled at times as to the particulars of what was happening, the relationships between all the characters, and so forth.  TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a film that demands minutely close attention from audience members, but even though I found the plot borderline incomprehensible at times, its very impenetrability ironically works to its advantage.  Viewers are made to feel as jaded, uncertainty, and questioning as to the particulars of what’s transpiring, which mirrors Smiley and his crew’s journey to catch the mole.  However, it’s very easy to concede how some viewers will be simply befuddled by the time-hopping, interweaving, and labyrinthine nature of the screenplay. 

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is not so bewildering and disorienting that it becomes a work to spite, though.  The film is far too enthralling as a whole to generate such criticisms; not being able to tell what’s happening or what’s going to happening only contributes to its hypnotic texture and allure.  More importantly, it’s character and mood driven in ways so many other countless spy thrillers aren’t, and Alfredson’s cold and modulated direction alongside Oldman’s enthrallingly detached performance make the film’s bleak Cold War-era world ring with that much more nerve-jangling immediacy. There is no real room for passion or emotion for George Smiley, as that would lead to him exposing damning vulnerabilities.  Alfredson concludes the film, oddly enough, with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of the French song “La Mer”.  The lovely tune is an effective counterpoint to the treacherous, grim and portentous world that Smiley operates in.  Just think how ineffective he would be if he allowed himself to be taken in with the niceties of life.

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