A film review by Craig J. Koban February 1, 2012
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
2011, R, 127 mins.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.