Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (United Kingdom/France/Germany, 2011)

December 05, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Poster

For decades, the spy thriller has been dominated by one name: Bond. 007's trappings, which include pyrotechnics, high-octane chases, death-defying stunts, gorgeous women, and the like, have come to define the genre. While it's unquestionable that Ian Fleming's superspy has left an indelible impression on movies and novels, it would not be reasonable to apply Bond-generated expectations to the grounded endeavors of John le Carré and Len Deighton. Both authors began writing in the early 1960s with the primary purpose of creating "anti-Bond" protagonists. For Deighton, it was Harry Palmer (played in three films by Michael Caine). For Le Carré, it was George Smiley. Physically unprepossessing, meek in manner, emotionally cool, and antisocial, Smiley's primary weapon is his mind not a gun. He is a master tactician of the Cold War, matching wits against the best the KGB has to offer.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is regarded by critics as being among the best of Le Carré's yarns. A faithful adaptation (which this is) has two requirements: the narrative must be dense and the pace must be slow. Le Carré's stories have no room for mindless action; they are heavily plot-driven, which makes them a challenge to adapt. Two hours is probably too short. The condensation required to cram the essence of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a feature film of reasonable length is likely to result in less attentive audience members becoming lost along the way. Even a quick trip to the bathroom could be a viewer's undoing. And, although the pacing is slow, events move rapidly. A lot happens, but little is explosive.

There is an unavoidable temptation to compare the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with the 1979 Alec Guinness mini-series of the same name. In many ways, it's unfair. For one thing, as good as Gary Oldman is in the lead role, many consider Guinness (who reprised the part in 1982's Smiley's People) to be the "definitive Smiley." Secondly, it's easier to tell the story in a relaxed, coherent manner when given six hours instead of two hours. Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be the best possible movie version of the story, but it illustrates that the big screen is not the ideal medium for a tale of this complexity.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy concerns the efforts of retired British agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to uncover the identity of a Soviet mole in the upper echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service (called "The Circus") following the ouster and death of Control (John Hurt). Because any of the four men in charge - Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) - could be the spy, Smiley must work from the outside, employing a small, loyal team. Gradually, by doggedly following clues and using his finely-tuned instincts, he determines that he is matching wits with the most intelligent and dangerous operative of Moscow Center, codenamed "Karla." He then sets a trap to catch the mole, in the process endangering his life and those of the other members of his team.

This is the English-language debut of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, whose 2008's vampire movie, Let the Right One In, catapulted him onto the international stage. His perspective of Cold War England is one of grim bleakness. The outdoors aren't significantly brighter than the indoors and the palette is dominated by grays and browns. The visual style seeps into everything and allows Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to effectively recreate the paranoia that dominated the '70s and '80s in foreign relations.

The high density of the narrative forces the viewer to absorb too much exposition too fast. Despite this flaw, however, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy generates a fair amount of suspense, especially since the identity of the mole will not be immediately clear to viewers unfamiliar with the source material. As with all good mysteries, the red herrings are sufficiently plausible to keep the audience guessing. Scenes of high tension, however, are few and far between. This is a more highbrow experience than many non-Le Carré aficionados may be expecting. The movie opens and climaxes with white-knuckle scenes but, aside from a gambit by Smiley's associate Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to steal something from within The Circus, there aren't many in-between. Instead, we get a lot of flashbacks and low-tension scenes that bring Smiley ever-closer to the truth.

In keeping with expectations, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is well acted. As Smiley, Oldman gives us a character who is more emotional than his written counterpart, but no less cunning and brilliant. He's a low-key chess master. Oldman's participation in the Harry Potter and Batman franchises has provided him with widespread recognition, but this gives him a chance to exercise his acting chops in a cerebral role. His Smiley is younger than Guinness' but easily reconciled with the version in the novels.

Colin Firth, last year's Best Actor Oscar winner, has no trouble adopting a supporting role. Along with respected character actors Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, and David Dencik, he embraces the nuances of the "is-he-or-isn't-he" part. John Hurt, who was at one time considered for the role of Smiley, is Control. Despite being dead before the opening credits have finished rolling, he manages a fair amount of screen time through flashbacks. Mark Strong, as agent Jim Prideaux, and Tom Hardy, as courier Ricki Tarr, make the most of their limited appearances. Neither commands the screen as they have in other films, but they are quietly competent.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will likely play well to art house audiences, who exhibit a greater willingness to embrace films that demand patience and concentration. An absence of either quality will make this seem an arid and somewhat impenetrable experience. For those with an appreciation of the complicated back-stabbing and double-dealing that characterizes the labyrinthine worlds about which Le Carré and Deighton write, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will provide a satisfying reminder that movies need not be action packed to be thrilling and that it's better for a screenplay to err on the side of being too complex than too dumb.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (United Kingdom/France/Germany, 2011)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2011-12-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: In English, Russian, and Hungarian with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1