Film Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I was probably not the best choice to review the new film Tinker Tailor Solider Spy for The MacGuffin. Double-crossing, secret-plotting, many-character-having spy movies make me anxious; I spend much of the time just fretting that I’ll miss something plot-wise. And if this is the case with a typical James Bond-style adventure, director Tomas Alfredson’s film takes it to new levels. The plot is purposefully, stubbornly obtuse, and often I had to just let go and try to enjoy the scene at hand while acknowledging that I didn’t understand the context—or, to put a finer point on it, what the hell was going on at all. It’s not so much that there are too many twists and turns to follow, but that we’re left to fend for ourselves as they come. I realize that too much exposition can be tiresome, but any summary at some point would have been appreciated. It can be argued that leaving so much gray area enhances the message of the film; I get that. I don’t mind working for comprehension, but I’d like to at least get the impression that if I work hard enough, an answer exists somewhere. But maybe that’s how a lot of spies feel.
Okay. That’s the tough part. If you’re still with me, I’ll go on to describe what did work about the film for me. There is, fortunately, a lot on that end of the spectrum as well. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired agent who has been called by a former colleague to act upon some information: there is a mole in British intelligence, a double agent for the Russians, and the possibilities have been narrowed to a few men at the top of the ladder. Smiley, with his intimate knowledge and skill, but outsider status, is in the best position to investigate and find out who the culprit is. This basic premise folds back in upon itself and then spins out again many times before the scoundrel in question is identified.
Oldman plays the role of the investigator with the impression that much is going on beneath Smiley’s often blank-faced façade. He is a still man, watching; yet, something roils within him. Though the embodiment of the character is to be commended, the script left me craving revelations that never go deep enough; a hint here and there only makes me want more. Playing off of the core that Oldman provides, many actors do fine work in the very impressive ensemble: Mark Strong, whose mission gone wrong forces him to seek a new life; Colin Firth, a top-level agent who is the life of the party; Toby Jones, a harsh, grating superior; Tom Hardy, a young agent who made a critical mistake; John Hurt, the one who reels Smiley back in; Benedict Cumberbatch, Smiley’s right-hand man; Kathy Burke, a former colleague who pines for the good ol’ days. Of these, easily my favorite was Cumberbatch, who was previously mostly just an incredibly awesome name for me. He is wonderful here. (For those about to sing about how I need to watch the British Sherlock series: I know, I know. It’s in the queue.)
Despite the cascading, confounding plot, this is a spy movie that is more about the mindset and lifestyle of someone who takes on intelligence for a job than it is about intrigue. The best moments deal with the realities of all that these men have given up in order to serve their country, in a way that seems almost addictive to some of them. The most affecting scene of all is a fleeting one, where one man must give up something important to him, in order not to endanger any loved ones for his own professional choices. It is heartbreaking, just for a second; then he is back on post, straight-faced.
The physical atmosphere that Alfredson creates enhances the mood and characterizations. The muted colors of 1970s England are both lovely and oppressive. The dated communications equipment—cutting edge stuff when John le Carré’s novel was first published—is fun to see and also adds to the overall suspense. New technology can be cool, but we must admit that it’s much more tense to wait for a coded message to come over the wire than it is to hear the beep of a text message. The pervasive mood of the Cold War enhances the sense of dread that builds as Smiley seems to be nearing his target. Add to that a few genuine moments of surprise, and the film provides a good level of entertainment, even if I did have to admit I was confused most of the time. But hey, lovely actors, British accents, and three-piece suits…need I say more?
Final Grade: B