Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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I won’t pretend that I understood everything that happened in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I think I got most of it, but let’s face it, the novel by John Le Carre (which I have not read) was once made into a seven-part series for the BBC. Clearly a two-hour film adaptation is going to leave stuff out and go at a freight-train pace. But though I longed to grab my fellow theater-goers as they left the theater to have a group debrief, I found the artistry of the film so impressive, and the conclusion so pulse-pounding that it made up for any fogginess on my part.

Set in 1973, during the Cold War, the film concerns the top brass of British Intelligence, known as “the circus.” The head of the organization, known only as “Control” (John Hurt), sends an agent to Hungary on a tip that information regarding a highly-placed Soviet double agent, or mole, is available. That mission goes disastrously awry, and Hurt is forced into retirement, along with one of his top agents, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But when evidence of the mole reaches the ministry, Oldman is brought out of retirement to track him down. It is one of four men, each given a code name of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, or Poor Man (Smiley, once considered one of the suspects, was labeled “Spy.”)

So what we have is not a whodunit, but a whoisit, with the same level of sophistication of the best Agatha Christie mystery. We are led down certain alleys–in fact, the clues point to one particular man so blatantly at first I knew it couldn’t be him–but the result was a surprise to me, so if you haven’t read the book or seen the miniseries, don’t let anyone dare spoil it for you.

But, my goodness, this film is dense. At least 10 percent of it went by me in a blur. I’ll take the blame for much of that, but there are some things I’m left wondering about. I’ll bring up a few, without spoilers: one character, after changing identities, is teaching school (he has a favorite student who looks like a young Roger Ebert). How did Oldman track him down? Also, at a momentous Christmas party, Oldman sees two people in a romantic embrace. Who were they? I have my suspicions, but I don’t believe this was revealed.

Alfredson’s direction is crisp and efficient (along with his editor, Dino Jonsäter), while the script by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor works wonders with what must have been an insane assignment. The cast is full of familiar British actors: Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth are three of the suspected moles, while Benedict Cumberbatch (what a great British name) and Tom Hardy are both terrific as part of team Oldman. I was surprised not to see Michael Fassbender, and then I read he was going to be in it but I had to drop out because of a conflict, and was replaced by Hardy. As for Oldman, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who became well known for playing Sid Vicious. He’s so good as a wizened veteran of the intelligence wars that I completely forgot who I was watching. He has several great scenes–I think the best is when he tells about his one meeting with “Karla,” the Russian master spy. It seems that Karla absconded with Oldman’s lighter, which of course will be seen before the film is over.

I highly recommend Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I also recommend seeing it a second time. I will certainly do so, when it’s on DVD, so I can watch with subtitles and a pause and rewind button.

My grade for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

7 responses »

  1. Also, at a momentous Christmas party, Oldman sees two people in a romantic embrace. Who were they? I have my suspicions, but I don’t believe this was revealed.

    SPOILER – use the mouse to highlight the following text to read

    That was Hayden and Smiley’s wife, wasn’t it? Hayden tells Smiley that Karla ordered him to have an affair with her, and make sure Smiley knew about it, because he figured that Smiley would distrust his own suspicions of Hayden because of the personal grudge.

    END SPOILER (Can’t make it any more spoiler-proof than that.)

  2. By the way, I would recommend we use that kind of spoiler-proofing from now on. Here’s how to do it:

    [FONT COLOR=”#FFFFFF”]sample text[/font]

    Just change the brackets to greater-than and less-than signs like normal html tags.

  3. Wanted to see Shame last weekend but ended up seeing this instead. Maybe it was alcohol or the lateness of the showing, but I found myself fighting off sleep from the very beginning. Should probably give it another shot under better circumstances down the line.

    Oldman was very good, of course.

  4. One of my top films of the year. Not for the Michael Bay crowd and that’s why I like it so much. The scenes with Oldman and Firth crackle, but then so do the ones with Cumberbatch and Hardy. I’d love to see him receive the Oscar.

    I miss these top-notch spy films that make you fill in the blanks – and they’re not really blanks. You just have to THINK.

  5. Heard Gary Oldman interviewed on the radio today. What a charming, affable guy. He has the right attitude about an Oscar nomination, saying he’s determined to enjoy every minute of it.

  6. Gary Oldman is great. The length, the editing, and the determination to condense the book into a movie ruined it. There are so many flashbacks, it leaves the viewer with no sense of time or place. The viewer ,(if one’s willing to admit it), is confused after the first 20 minutes and through the rest of the film.
    The editing is beyond hard to follow, are the ability of the viewer to string together the flashbacks in this film are almost impossible.
    There’s a great film in there somewhere. Maybe a re-edit would make it understandable for most of us.

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