Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a superior thriller that accomplishes the unfathomable in condensing John le Carré’s masterful British espionage novel into an appropriately dense but followable two-hour film. And shockingly, not a ton of important detail is lost in the translation. Director Tomas Alfredson (following up the sensational Let the Right One In) deserves a great deal of credit for making the slow-burn source material really smolder on screen. The gorgeous cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema and the breathtakingly tense score from Alberto Iglesias certainly help. But the best-in-show award goes to screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan. I wish this came out a year earlier so The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo team could take note. This is how you adapt a long novel for the movies.

The film takes place in London circa 1970. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a former intelligence agent for “The Circus” who, along with his boss, Control (John Hurt), was forced out a number of years ago following an incident in Hungary which resulted in the death of an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong). Control sent Prideaux on the job for one reason: Get the name of a mole who has infiltrated The Circus’ upper echelon. But he gets shot, and Control and Smiley take the fall. Now, Smiley is approached with a confidential task: Work covertly with an agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to take down the mole, whom they now know is one of four individuals. Their codenames: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Poorman. Their identities: Percy Allenline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

Yes, the novel is probably a richer overall experience (it’s one of my all-time favorites) than the film, but for high-school students looking to pass their Tinker Tailor exam, this abridged version will definitely help them get by. For newbies to this world, bathroom breaks aren’t recommended, but everything is there. The film isn’t as impenetrable as some would make you think. And Tinker Tailor fans won’t be disappointed with the latest incarnation of The Circus, either. It’s a place that sucks the life out of you, which you can see behind the eyes of just about every actor in this marvelous ensemble.

Gary Oldman is virtually unrecognizable behind Smiley’s thick glasses, but the actor’s very contemplative performance is a thing of beauty. Smiley shows all the world-weariness of someone who’s been in his business for far too long. Yet, he’s still as smart as whip. He can deduce far more from a person’s actions than anyone watching would be able to. But this skill has clearly come at great personal cost. He lost a marriage over his work, and those who used to be his chums are now potential enemies. It’s very nuanced work from the veteran actor.

Those around Oldman are also great. Benedict Cumberbatch (who seems right on the cusp of stardom) plays a younger man in Guillam—one who we see learning some of the same sad lessons Smiley did when he was his age. Tom Hardy (who has already achieved stardom) plays an operative with key information and a personal grudge against whomever is the mole. He’s as good as you’d expect from one of the finest young actors working today. Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and the others all stay a little more in the background, but they fill their roles quite well.

On a craft level, Tinker Tailor is sensational. Iglesias’ score moves things along at a brisk pace without getting too much in the way of things. The editing is strong and makes good use of the montage, in order to keep the running time manageable. And Van Hoytema’s cinematography is very clean and interesting. Some of the shots will take you by surprise, and the overall aesthetic is a bit gloomy, which certainly seems appropriate given the nature of the story and its characters.

Tinker Tailor has been accused of being too cold—something I don’t agree with if you couldn’t tell by now. Yes, these characters don’t exactly wear their emotions on their sleeves. They are very much like pieces on a chess board, and Control even goes so far as to model chess pieces in their likenesses. But a little thought and patience goes a long way with this film. Stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded. There are no great truths to be discovered, and it doesn’t really bring anything new and exciting to the familiar spy genre. But it’s a damn good story that’s told as well as you could hope for, and as with Let the Right One In, it’s got me extremely excited for the next trick Tomas Alfredson has up his sleeve.

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