‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Review

Published 3 years ago by , Updated December 12th, 2014 at 9:32 pm,

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

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.

Colin Firth Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

“There is a mole… right at the top of the circus.”

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).

Benedict Cumberbatch in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

Espionage is abound in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

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.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Starring Gary Oldman Review Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Review

Gary Oldman as Geroge Smiley in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

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:

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Our Rating:

4 out of 5

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  1. Kofi

    This sounds like an awesome movie.

    Out of curisoity, have you seen it twice yet and if so was the second viewing just as worth the ticket price as the first?


    • I saw it 3 times. It only gets better.

      • THREE? That seals it. I’m gonna see it. Problem is it’s coming out late where I am…gotta avoid spoilers at all costs till then.

        By the way, is Oldman’s performance really as Oscar-worthy as I’ve been hearing?

      • Not sure if you’ve see or heard of it, it may not even be out yet ( I caught a private screening the other night) but there’s a similar sounding movie called PAGE EIGHT featuring Bill Nigh that now after having watched it seems to be a British version of Tinker Tailor Soldier SPY. Page Eight is entertaining albeit slow for a spy drama but it might be of interest based on your review of Tinker.

  2. I would see this just for the casting alone…

  3. I will see it if it is released in my area.

  4. Why is it interesting movies like this get shown in very few theatres while complete tripe like Green Lantern get shoved down our throats? SR is the only place I’ve seen anything about this movie, why no major marketing push for a movie with a spectacular cast like this?!?

    I wanted to see this one as soon as I saw Gary Oldman was in it but reading this review makes it REALLY want to see it now!!

  5. Agree 100% that Gary Oldman needs an Oscar nom. The man’s talent is on par with Daniel Day Lewis. Unfortunately, neglect and maybe bills to pay have caused him to prostitute his talent in such bland vehicles as Harry Potter. I hope this brings him back to reckoning as a truly great dramatic actor.

    • “Unfortunately, neglect and maybe bills to pay have caused him to prostitute his talent in such bland vehicles as Harry Potter.”

      Cute. If Harry Potter was the only movie you could think of as bland then his acting career is most certainly going in the right direction.

    • I would seriously have to disagree with everything after your first statement. I found this movie to be the most bland of his films. Before you go ranting about great this film is, I assure you, it’s not. Yes, I got everything in the film. No, I’m not someone who couldn’t comprehend the film. Finally, No, I’m not a ranting harry potter fan. I simply think you are an elitist who thinks actor should only be in roles that better there status as an “actor”. Forget that they might want to act in a harry potter film because it would fun, not to mention highly more successful than this garbage film.

      For those that have not seen this yet. I would agree with most of the articles statements. Except that the really intelligent people should stay away as it will only leave you dumbfounded that someone thought this film was “intricate”. The acting however was extremely well done. Unfortunately the anti-climatic nature and the extremely loose time line will leave you wondering where the thrill was.

      • trollipolli I have a question for you.. Did you ever see the good shepard? If so did you like that? Also how many times did you see this move? This movie sounds alot like the good shepard. First time I saw good shepard I didnt like it. For some reason I watched it again and loved it. Matt Damons character is very cool. I like that you have to listen and watch it hard to get whats going on. Anyways just interested to read what you thought of good shepard

  6. I hope it hits Netflix shortly after it hits DVD and Blu-ray…

    • It will probably be on Netflix 4 weeks after blu-ray release, then will directly be flagged as “very long wait” for another 4 weeks or so, pretty much like any new blu ray release on Netflix these days. :(

  7. Kofi, when is this film going to open wide in the US? Or will it open wide at all? Right now it seems to be playing in just a few “select theaters.”

  8. Saw this a while ago and found it outstanding. I thought any movie adaptation would have some way to go to compete with the 6-hour 1979 BBC version both in terms of length and Alec Guinness’s performance as Smiley, but if anything this movie outdid it on both counts. Although it’s obviously been condensed, not once did I feel any element had been short-changed or skimmed over. Gary Oldman at first seemed to be almost channelling the stoicism and self-control Guinness brought to the character until two stand-out scenes: the Christmas party “discovery” (I won’t spoil it) and the one I’d been wondering how it would be played – Smiley’s meeting with Karla 20-odd years previously.

    The former I actually don’t think Guinness could have pulled off at all if it had been included in the TV version. Smiley’s brief reaction depended on the plausibility of pent-up feeling, and Oldman put all the weight (and possible baggage, in the viewer’s mind) of his past performances into just a couple of seconds of ghastly realisation. Karla was played in the original by a completely silent Patrick Stewart (looking, weirdly, almost no different to the way he does today). Dispensing with the flashback scene altogether and having Smiley simply relate his version of the encounter made it more poignant; in fact even more vivid and real.

    Dredging up some vague feeling of the past through easy design cues, motifs and cinematography is one thing – I can’t think of another movie or TV production that’s managed to evoke such a convincingly drab beige-and-grey-shrouded vision of England in the 1970s as this one did in me. The setting was as cold, formal and “logical” as the characters’ behaviour: seemingly bland or constrained, teeming with ambiguity underneath the surface, an atmosphere of constant foreboding and dread.

    The brilliant ensemble cast added a tangible world outside the frame. A set of presences more than the sum of their collective screen time. TTSS is quiet, intricate, hypnotic. Genuinely one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long time. Great review, Kofi. I’m really glad Screen Rant has chosen to cover it, and that its essential “Englishness” has managed to travel, as it were.

  9. wow…really screenrant? The trend of this film is to say “if you’re into thinking you’ll LOVE IT” that just not true. The film is dull. None of the actors produced anything oscar worthy performances that deserve this amount of praise. Sure they are all good actors acting well, but not oscar worthy. I love me a good thinking film, but this didn’t require thought, it was just an old man’s film where you just sat and watched old men talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk. Not worth 4 stars…maybe a 2.5 for me.

    • That’s actually a fair definition of both espionage and politics. You wouldn’t have enjoyed sitting through six hours of it then, Luke. ;-)

      • 6 hours? is that all it was blimey!! :)

    • I agree – this film is confusing, boring, dull. That is funny because I grew up in the UK in the 50′s and sixties, so I’m very familier with the background of the film.
      The plot seemed so weak – I think I will have to revisit the book – maybe the plot was always weak, but the book was saved by good writing.

  10. WHY IS THIS IN LIMITED RELEASE!??? god..i hate it. might have to take another trip to the city for this one

  11. Great review Kofi .
    I Loved the film and I agree with your rating .
    My only disagreement Is that I am pretty sure I got it all in one sitting.
    Not that I wouldnt mind seeing it again ,
    But I didnt have any unresolved questions.

  12. This was released in the UK months ago, is it’s later release in the US down to Oscar eligibility or something?

    • @DL – yeah, it was originally supposed to come out in September, but I think they were maybe banking on an Oscar nod for Oldman.

  13. How do we find out where/when this is playing?

  14. @Kofi, this is being released by me this week, just want to know if the movie is mostly flashbacks like the book or if it’s a straight shot from point A to B?

  15. Boring, boring boring. Scenes change. Movie has no plot. Hard to follow. good cast but directors dont know how to direct. Fell asleep twice. Could not wait for film to end . Walked out after 1.5 hours. These directors need to go back to school. The worst movie of the year. Cut-a-way to scenes was horrible. Scenes had nothing to do with the movie. Boring dialog. Very monotone. No action, just a complete bore. Would recommend movie only to hard of hearing or the blind.

  16. Loved this movie! . I don’t think it was complicated at all. It was obvious Karla&spy were both of the same. Noticed in the begining Oldman was sitting at the table in Turkey in the beige trench coat at the table smoking ,with the engraved lighter? The camera never showed His face.

    The information the Russian girl had about the mole that She gave Ricky Tarr was about Smiley Gary Oldman. That’s why they had her brains blowned out. She was a threat.

    Also Colin Filrth figured out the game that was being played,that smiley&karla was the same. Smiley invented Karla’s indentity. There is a huge significance to the chess pieces. If you know how to play chess,you can easily put the pieces together.

    Smiley played Tinker,Tailor,poorman&Soilder like the true pawns & chess pieces they really were. Brilliant lmao

  17. This was the most boring movie I have seen in a long time. Its not that I don’t like “a more intelligent spy film – one that you have to see at least twice to get your head around.” I got my head around it the first viewing; this movie simply was as dry as toast. The people who complain that it was confusing simply could not pay attention, could not keep their eyes open, or are simply unperceptive and failed to pick up on the subtleties of the plot’s development. Oldman’s performance was good but not Oscar worthy. The rest of the talented cast wasn’t utilized properly. “Characters sitting around talking, or performing seemingly mundane tasks” (emphasis on mundane) is a great description of this movie. A movie does not have to be boring to be intellectual or thought provoking. The only thought it provoked for me was why did I choose to sit through that beating? The answer is I constantly had faith that it would pick up or get better, which it didn’t. And as for the gory scenes jolting the audience to life, most of them are already asleep by that point. My recommendation for those who havn’t yet seen: Only see it if you have been having difficulty sleeping or are exceptionally pretentious.

    • well said!

  18. This movie is boring as hell. I dont know if its made for real intellectuals or just wanna be intellectuals but i wanted to pluck my eyeballs out fifteen minutes in. I got it, it was just plain boring.

  19. Hmm. I did liked the movie, though I had to see it twice before I got it. But indeed, a bit more suspense and action wouldn’t hurt.

  20. I fell asleep four or five times. This is a very boring film. By the end I didn’t even care who the mole was. I just wanted it to be over.

  21. I fell asleep during the first half hour. Very boring movie with monotonic dialogue.
    ‘The Debt’ was a great spy movie. Loved the interaction between the spies and the sparse yet intense action.