Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a thinking person’s spy film that will bore those more inclined towards action-heavy spy adventures.
When people hear the term ‘spy movie’ these days, chances are their minds turn toward the more action-oriented tropes of popular franchises like Mission: Impossible or the Bourne series. The spy movies of today are mostly fantasy – crafted more for entertainment purposes than insight – but the bygone Cold War era brought us more grounded and realistic spy stories, including the noteworthy works of John le Carré (real name David John Moore Cornwell), a former British spy turned spy novel author.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the big-screen adaptation of Carré’s novel of the same name, and serves as the first chapter in the “Karla Trilogy” – the saga chronicling master spy George Smiley’s quest to uproot his nemesis, “Karla,” a top spy in the Soviet KGB.
However, where many modern spy films are wholly reliant on action movie formulas, director Tomas Alfredson sticks close to the understated approach of Carré’s narrative – the question is, will modern audiences still embrace a complicated spy flick that doesn’t offer a whole lot of action?
The story takes play in the ’70s, as the top echelon of British intelligence (known as “the circus”) is fighting to cut through the web of deceit and misinformation constantly being spun by the KGB. Times are changing, and the old guard – specifically “circus” ringmaster “Control” (John Hurt) and stalwart spy master George Smiley (Gary Oldman) – are being forced into retirement, following a bloody botched mission to uncover an alleged KGB mole within the top levels of British intellegence.
Before Smiley can even get used to the idea of retirement, he’s tapped by the heads of intelligence to go back to work on the case of a KGB mole – a mole controlled by Smiley’s KGB counterpart and longtime nemesis, “Karla.” Recruiting a team of lower-level and retired espionage agents, Smiley begins to unravel the web of deception, half-truths, misinformation, and questionable loyalties amongst the circus’ inner cabal. The only question is: which man is the rotten apple in the bunch?
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson is probably best known to American audiences for his adaptation of the vampire tale, Let the Right One In. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is constructed in Alfredson’s signature style, which often relies more on carefully crafted mis-en-scene (scene composition) and inference – as opposed to exposition or action to convey the story. (Though, admittedly, there are a couple of sequences in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which rely almost too much on heavy-handed exposition.) This is a film that requires the viewer to constantly pay attention and connect the dots to understand what’s going on and why the characters are doing what they’re doing – and for some people, that level of complexity and subtly is going to be difficult and/or boring. However, for the viewer who likes to be challenged: this film is rich and rewarding to anyone willing to invest the necessary time and thought.
The other divisive factor is the level of action in this film: there is none. As a former intelligence agent, John le Carré knew the realities of the spy world – a place where information, mind-games and deception were the weapons of war – gun battles and fist-fights being a distant second. In staying true to source material, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (who tragically passed away last year) and Peter Straughan (The Debt) had to forego the usual crutches of cinematic storytelling (movement and action) in favor of less captivating story beats (characters sitting around talking, or performing seemingly mundane tasks).
While there is great importance and meaning in just about every scene featured in the film, some casual viewers are going to inevitably be left with the impression that little-to-nothing “happens,” as there are no big action set pieces, and most of the major twists and/or developments are muted, understated, and require one to have been paying careful attention to what came before. That said, a few sudden (and grisly) moments of violence are likely to shake dozing viewers out of their stupor.
The cast of the film is made up of accomplished (mostly English) actors, including Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Ciarán Hinds (The Debt), John Hurt (V for Vendetta), Mark Strong (Green Lantern), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement), Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire), David Dencik (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Kathy Burke (Elizabeth). Each of these aforementioned actors is skilled in their own right; together as an ensemble, they make it easy to believe in the world of le Carré’s novel and the shady players therein. However, the combined efforts of these accomplished performers in the supporting roles still don’t outshine the powerhouse that is leading man Gary Oldman as George Smiley.
Smiley is a fascinating character: stoic, cunning, manipulative, insightful, and always, always, poker-faced. Oldman brings him to life in full range and complexity, while never once breaking Smiley’s icy demeanor. The scenes where the master spy is sitting back, silently eyeing his subject, are just as interesting as the moments when he delivers a monologue that reveals the inner workings of his mind – or the predatory nature hid beneath his calm, controlled, exterior.
All along the way, Oldman punctuates his performance with subtle hints of body language and mannerism that speak volumes about who Smiley is, and what his history has made him. It’s a hard thing to make a static character into an engaging protagonist (after all, most of the intrigue with a protagonist is watching them change and develop over the course of the story), but Oldman pulls it off so effortlessly it should be scary. That is, if we didn’t already know how talented Gary Oldman is. (Seriously, somebody get this guy an Oscar nomination already!)
If there is one element of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I must take issue with, it’s the original music composed by Alberto Iglesisas. This is a film that is already difficult to decipher, so one would think that musical cues would be a crucial tool in helping the viewer realize (even though they may not fully understand) when a moment is supposed to be suspenseful or important. However, more often than not, Iglesisas’ somber orchestrated score gives a tranquil scene the same weight as a suspenseful one, making it hard for casual viewers to rely on audio cues to help them along – and easy for them to be lulled into trance.
In the end, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a thinking person’s spy film that will bore those more inclined towards action-heavy spy adventures. However, those who like a more intelligent spy film – one that you have to see at least twice to get your head around – then this is a movie you will definitely want to watch…and watch again, and watch again.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is currently playing in theaters. Check out the trailer below: