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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A chilly, brainy drama

***

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TINKER TAYLOR SOLDIER SPY
***
DIRECTED BY Tomas Alfredson
STARS Gary Oldman, John Hurt

Gary Oldman and John Hurt in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Photo: Focus Features)
  • Gary Oldman and John Hurt in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Photo: Focus Features)

Many viewers might find it easier to wade through quicksand while sporting cement blocks on their feet than understanding just what the heck is going on during the opening half-hour of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Author John le Carre's 1974 novel required a seven-part miniseries that ran over five hours when it premiered on the BBC back in 1979, yet here's Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (making his English-language debut on the heels of his international success with the vampire yarn Let the Right One In) and scripters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan attempting to compress all this intel into a shade over two hours.

For the most part, they succeed. The early stretch of this chilly Cold War drama will indeed be tough going for moviegoers acclimated to the comparative simplicity of the Bourne trilogy (to say nothing of the 007 oeuvre), but those willing to pay attention will be rewarded with a film of unexpected intricacy and various small pleasures — indeed, it's often reminiscent of the sort of spy flick that was made during the picture's early-1970s setting.

Tackling the role that Alec Guinness owned in the miniseries, Gary Oldman is quietly effective as George Smiley, a key member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6, aka "The Circus"). So taciturn that he's likely to be mistaken for a character in the silent film The Artist, Smiley initially remains on the sidelines as the SIS head, known only as Control (John Hurt), deduces that one of the organization's top men is actually a mole working for the Russians. But a sabotaged mission leads to the mandatory retirement of both Smiley and Control, and it's only after the latter passes away that Smiley is brought back to ferret out the leak.

The central material concerning the four suspects (played by Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik) actually proves to be the least compelling part of the picture, and the unmasking of the traitor is more apt to elicit shrugs than gasps. What makes the movie cling to our senses are the soulful transgressions of other key characters: the maverick agent (a wired Tom Hardy) who falls in love at the wrong time; the assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose personal life proves to be as dependent on secrets as his professional one; the bureau's discarded expert on Russia (Kathy Burke), wistfully drawing on nostalgia-tinged memories; and the field agent (Mark Strong) quietly shattered by betrayal.

As far as le Carre screen adaptations go, I much prefer 1965's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and 2005's The Constant Gardener, although it probably should be noted that the author himself considers this the best filmization of one of his works. Conversely, Bret Easton Ellis Tweeted about the awfulness of this movie. Le Carre vs. Ellis — considering that's the mental and literary equivalent of a brawl between Godzilla and Jar Jar Binks, I'd say it's safe for discerning viewers to give this a shot.

Go here for a look at the 10 Best & 10 Worst Movies of 2011.

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