In a cinematic world where James Bond and Jason Bourne are the current standard bearers for spy movies, something like ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ should have come as a nice breath of fresh air…a low tech and character based look at the type of material that usually involves shootouts and explosions. Alas, something was lost in translation here and the end result is a mixed bag at best. To be fair, there are things to like in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, but much of those positives are lost in the shuffle of an overlong and middling spy thriller that gives new meaning to the term “slow burn”. Gary Oldman makes the iconic role of George Smiley his own, but he’s about the only thing in this bleak film that I have no real issue with. I understand that a Cold War set flick should be bleak, but this is a movie without any joy and it affects the audience watching it. What should be a tense search for a mole in MI6 becomes merely a chore to sit through. It’s not necessarily the fault of director Tomas Alfredson or co-writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, but more in the issues in taking John Le Carre’s well known and long spy novel to the big screen. The TV version took 7 hours. This one only takes a little more than 2, but it feels just about 7 hours long in the end…
Just days into his forced retirement, former agent George Smiley (Oldman) is called back into service to help figure out who among the top echelon of “The Circus” (the highest levels of MI6) is actually a mole for the Soviets. The outgoing leader known as Control (John Hurt) was obsessed with figuring out who was betraying their country, and his attempt to find out left agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) blown in Budapest, with horrible results. When Control was ousted, so was Smiley, but now he’s asked back to work on this case. Assisting him is the young agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), with the suspects representing the brain trust of the agency. There’s Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Hayden (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Cirian Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), all of whom seem ominous at best, and potentially dastardly at worst. Factoring into the plot as well is the disgraced agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who becomes an important piece of the puzzle for Smiley. It’s all very complex and sometimes convoluted stuff, but it all remains a bit too obtuse to really work. It plays like a great novel or miniseries (which it has been) shrunk down to a movie length without making it accessible as a movie.
The acting is the best thing in the film, and it’s led by another terrific turn by Gary Oldman. It likely isn’t showy enough for an Oscar nomination, but it’s strong work by Oldman. I don’t find it to be his career best or anything, but he does exactly the type of performance that the film requires. Smiley is a bit of a chameleon, and someone you rarely notice. It’s odd to have a protagonist that you don’t pay much attention to, but Oldman pulls it off. The entire cast does a good job, though some have more to do than others. Making the best use of their short time on screen are Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives the second best performance in the flick. Colin Firth is almost wasted, but he does elevate his scenes. The likes of Toby Jones, Cirian Hinds, and John Hurt aren’t given too much to do though, and it takes away from their work. The rest of the cast includes Christian McKay, who’s always a welcome sight, but it does all come back to Gary Oldman. He was never going to do anything else besides make or break the flick. Without him, this would have been even harder to sit through.
It’s clear now that Tomas Alfredson is one of the better visual filmmakers out there today, but he needs to learn to pace his movies better. This one drags on and on, never really picking up steam except in one tense sequence when Guillam sneaks out a document from headquarters. Alfredson is only going to get better, but here he’s got the cinematography going for him and not much else. There’s a conscientious decision to just drop the audience right into the story and let them sink or swim, but most are going to drown. The script is fine, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s work was flawed from the start. This just doesn’t satisfy as a film. It needed to be able to breathe, or reworked completely. They tried to compromise and the result is little more than an interesting failure. They fill the movie with language meant for agents and never bother to explain, so it’s just not something meant to be really accessible. I’m not sure why they chose that route, but it just doesn’t work for me.
I went into ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ expecting a top notch Oscar contender, but aside from Best Cinematography or perhaps Best Original Score, there’s just not much there to get in a fuss over. Gary Oldman is very good, but it’s in the service of a movie that’s hard to enjoy. It’s not bad or anything, but you just can’t get into it the way you would the story told in the novel. I’m glad I saw it, but I wish it had been better and just don’t get all the praise that’s been heaped on it to date. Alas…
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Tags: benedict cumberbatch, book adaptation, Christian McKay, Cirian Hinds, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Oscar hopeful, tinker tailor soldier spy, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy