January 1, 2012
Review - " Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy "
(in theaters) By Roland Hansen
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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones,
Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict
Cumberbatch, Simon McBurney and other fine British,
Hungarian and Russian actors.
A really good spy film is about mind games. It's about
struggling against mind-fields to discover a truth hidden in
plain sight, and decoding it. In such a really good spy film,
no clue is spoon fed to the audience with tricks like slow
motion, highlighted comments or scenes or by focusing on a
character to either prove then guilty, or mislead viewers. A
true spy film, like the profession of espionage itself, is about
teasing the viewers, making them squirm in their seats with
A really good spy film is like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
In the height of the cold-war of the 1970s, there's a rumour
of a double agent in the top echelons of British Secret
Service. After an agent walks right into an ambush in
communist Budapest, the suspicions gather wind. A retired
agent, Smiley (Gary Oldman) who has intricate knowledge of
his own and other agencies, is recalled. He realises that the
clues to the mystery lies both in the present and a party a
few years back, that keeps playing in his mind.
In a good 'find the mole, plug the hole' spy film, the needle of
suspicion keeps circulating and does not spare even the
investigators. 'Trust no one, till the end' is the motto, thus
confusing, and challenging the viewer.
In a good spy film, the clues are never given en-masse.
Instead they are scattered like dust specs in the air, visible
only when light is shone on them. They are all over, hidden
amidst many other incidents that can also equally be clues. Finding answers thus become like building a jigsaw puzzle, only in
this case there are as many useless pieces that do not belong in the jigsaw, as there are those that do.
A good audience is the one, that picks the right one, is able to make the connections and find the mole before the
protagonist does. And if you pay attention in the film, you will. But blink and chances are that you will miss it.
That's because the film overlaps past and present as clues are thrown in plain sight. Yet, like time bombs they tick along in
your subconscious till just at the right time they explode in your conscious mind and you realize you knew it all along.
Smiley, so ironically named, is played by Gary Oldman like an expressionless painting whose eyes seem to follow your every
move. He’s stoic, but rest assured, he’s watching. His cards are held close to his vest, the result of many years’ experience
handling delicate pieces of information — and this is a most fragile internal-affairs assignment, for the Cold War is quietly
raging, and a Russian spy is in the midst.
Smiley’s investigation includes picking up the puzzle left behind by Control (John Hurt), who taped photos of MI6 higher-ups
on chess pieces prior to his death. Smiley, interestingly, finds his face on the king, and his colleagues, played by Toby Jones,
Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, on other pieces. Nobody is a pawn. Hmmm.
The plot flashes back between
its present day -1973 - and a
year prior, when undercover
field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark
Strong) was identified and shot
in Hungary. Assisting Smiley is
Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch).
Who does Smiley trust? No
one, and rightly so. Small
character bits are parsed out
sparingly, intricately merging
the personal with the
professional in the MI6 boys’
The complications and
characters - including Tom
Hardy as an agent assigned to
monitor a Russian diplomat -
pile up, each a key element in
this meticulous mystery, which
is perplexing and watchable,
but struggles to be entertaining
until the final half, when some of the pieces come together. It’s kind of a sour pickle of a film, an acquired taste, asking a lot of
the viewer, not just to follow the emotionally standoffish Smiley into a labyrinth, but to decipher the mutterings and sputterings
of wrinkled white guys speaking in thick British accents.
Director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) skillfully builds intrigue with a calm, deliberate hand. His camera sneaks
around corners, panning and zooming slowly through exactingly designed sets, quietly demanding our attention and
patience. This is intently visual storytelling, with more clues in the corner of the screen or a man’s wrinkled brow than in the
dialogue. Even if some of the details go unnoticed in the tangle, we still feel the acute tension of a secret war being waged by
powerful, volatile, fallible men.
As the cast list suggests, this is pretty much a showcase for the UK’s current crop of A-list actors, all of whom shine no matter
how brief their appearance. Firth as a smug womaniser might seem an obvious stand-out and he has a bunch of great
moments, but Jones’ final appearance is equally amazing. Hardy is excellent as a man crumbling at the edges, Strong is
especially good at suggesting depths only hinted at with his character, and… well, everyone is great here and they’re all in
the shade of Oldman. Oldman's performance is superb and not easy considering his flashier moments include trying on a
new pair of eyeglasses and removing his shoes. I didn't exactly have a stopwatch going, but he doesn't speak for about the
first 20 minutes of the film. We see him - trench coat, briefcase. He just doesn't throw words around loosely.
This is a film where a big action sequence involves someone walking in and retrieving a file from a library, but don’t take that
to mean this isn’t edge-of-your-seat viewing. The setting may be global espionage but the drama is all personal, a seedy
world of backstabbing and betrayal where love is a weakness ruthlessly exploited (see every single mention of Smiley’s wife)
and trust is a luxury that comes at a very high price. And if that requires a lot of scenes in seedy flats and dingy offices where
people just talk or swap meaningful glances, so much the better.
The film works so hard to get all the character moments right and make individual scenes work (right down to the music) that
the mystery element falls a little by the wayside, with a final revelation that feels a lot more obvious than it should. Being set
so firmly in the bleak 70s – the art direction here is as convincingly murky as the world it portrays – does distance the drama
from us a little as well, with a
layer of nostalgia blanketing
the wider issues. Even the
sad, bland, forgettable
Smiley comes off as more of
a master manipulator than
the average man he was in
This is the kind of intelligent
story-telling we don’t see
nearly often enough these
days, a film that credits the
audiences’ intelligence and
recognises that the drama
between people can be far
more compelling than any
number of explosions.
Fingers crossed it opens the
door for adapting the
following novels in Le Carre’
s Smiley/ Karla trilogy: more
of the same would be very
welcome indeed here.