Methodical Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Thrills

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:  4 out of 5
George Smiley:  I need you to do something for me.  You have to assume they're watching you...
Along with having one of my favorite titles to say out loud of the year (the other being Martha Marcy May Marlene), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also boasts one of the best ensemble casts of the year.  It is very delightful to report that the cast is certainly not wasted either, as everyone in this espionage-themed film has a chance to shine.  As a whole, the way the film plays out, it is very deliberately paced and all the more nuanced in the way it presents information.  Describing the basic plot is simple, but the complexity lies in the details presented.  This is very much a film that needs full attention paid to what the characters are saying and what is being shown in order to grasp all the detail in what is unfolding.  The film’s presentation easily harkens back to 70s spy thrillers, where it does not rely on action, but instead the notion of paranoia through many introspective characters.  Attention is key, as making one’s way through this film can be quite the challenging puzzle.

Based on the bestselling novel by John la Carre, who informed much of the spy genre in general, when dealing with that subject matter in popular media, the film adaptation is set in the 1970s and stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley.  George worked for British Intelligence (referred to as “the Circus”), serving as the right hand to Control (John Hurt), before being forced into early retirement.  His retirement was the result of an international incident based on an operation gone wrong in Hungary, which lead to an agent, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) getting shot, while attempting to buy Soviet information.

Despite his retired status, George receives word from a government figure that he should investigate the claims of a supposedly rogue agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy).  Tarr believes that there is in fact a mole working with the Circus and it is someone very high up.  Among the suspects there is Tinker (Percy Alleline, played by Toby Jones), Tailer (Bill Haydon, played by Colin Firth), Soldier (Roy Bland, played by Ciaran Hinds), and Poorman (Toby Esterhase, played by David Dencik).  With the help of an agent inside the Circus, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), George will do all he can to find the information he needs that will lead him to the truth.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was directed by Tomas Alfredson.  This film serves as Alfredson’s follow up to the much praised Swedish film Let the Right One In, and similar to that film’s somber mood and quiet efficiency, ‘Tinker’ gets a lot done by placing emphasis on character reactions and subtlety in the various detailed moments.  Also in similar fashion, the film’s both have bursts of violence that are not so much flashy as they are effective in conveying the appropriate story beat needed to move things forward.  However, while ‘Tinker’ is a spy drama, the most suspenseful sequence in this film does not arrive via rival agents armed and hunting each other, but rather during an intense scene that involves the theft of reading materials.  It is not that this film is attempting to deconstruct the genre of a spy thriller, it simply exists in a real world setting, which is well captured by Alfredson’s direction and the story that has been crafted by la Carre and then adapted for the screen by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor.

I can only try to pull highlights out of this cast, since it is so expansive, but everyone truly does great work here.  I was particularly excited to see Cumberbatch, having recently watched the BBC series Sherlock, and was quite pleased with how well he handled his role.  In particular, he is involved in the aforementioned incredibly tense sequence of the film, which he pulls off wonderfully.  Mark Strong has been a favorite character actor of mine for some time and I was quite pleased with the way he was embedded with so much pathos here, this time around, as opposed to playing another villain type.  Tom Hardy has a number of good scenes to play with as well, being utilized just enough to create some foundation for the central plot.  So many other great actors are here as well and it is quite impressive to see a cast like this pull things off so successfully, without feeling like they have overshadowed one another.

Of course a true notable amount of praise goes to Gary Oldman in the lead as Smiley, a man much different from a character you would come to expect Oldman to play.  While Oldman’s roles in the past have been typified with a sort of unhinged nature (not including his wonderful work as Jim Gordon in Nolan’s Batman series), the role of George Smiley is much different.  George is a character who internalizes almost everything and keeps the information that he gathers very close to the vest.  Oldman, being the chameleon that he is, pulls this off quite well.  While the characters all have lots of dialogue throughout this film, much of its success comes more from their physical actions and the way they deliver their lines.  Oldman is quite aware of this, as he manages to move through this film while keeping his cool throughout and absorbing plenty of information to make his character a quiet, but effective force.

The film looks great as well.  Given that it is set in the 70s, not only do we get to observe the wonderful haircuts and suits of the times, we get to observe all of the older methods of covert government operatives at work and how they have their organization setup.  Regardless of the accuracy in regards to the Circus, it was interesting nonetheless.  Helping matters is the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, who makes this film practically look like it came right out of the 70s.  The score by Alberto Iglesias helps this further by sounding quite fit for the genre being portrayed, as well as adding a bit of a jazz riff to the proceedings as well.

As informed as the performances may be and as pleased as I was with the overall look and feel of the film, it can be challenging at times to completely grasp.  It does move at a specific pace, which at times can be bothersome if one does not stick close to the plot that is presented.  The plot itself does become quite complex itself due to the way it has no desire to pander to the viewer.  Facts are presented to characters in the way they would speak, without pausing to relay the information in obvious dialogue.  It is nice this way, but it once again requires the full attention of the viewer, but even then, not being well versed in spy jargon could lead to some moments of feeling left behind.  I was never particularly unengaged by the film, but it was notably challenging to make sure I had everything straight.  There is also the issue of seeing within these characters and not feeling too left out due to their stiffness, which I would relate to the time they are living in and the professions they have.  And finally, I am curious to hear what others thoughts are on how the film reaches its conclusion.  I felt it to be fitting, given how the rest of the film played out, but I can imagine some being let down.

One of the compliments that comes to mind is how, despite the tricky nature of the story, in terms of requiring the viewer to keep up with the plot, I do want to check the film out again to both absorb more of the story and to continue to admire how much went into the making of this film.  I found it to be quite good overall, aided largely by the great work from the ensemble cast, with a number of highlights among them.  The 70s atmosphere was certainly a positive for the film as well.  Given the sexy nature of many spy thrillers in more modern times, it was quite interesting to observe the way this film acted as a throwback.  Although it does make sense, given that the material comes from a man who’s work essentially evolved into the sexier spy thrillers of today.  With that said, I’ll continue to welcome a retro spy thriller if it is as assured as this one.
George Smiley:  We are not so very different, you and I.  We've both spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another.


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