Review: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

‘As exhilarating as any summer blockbuster, and a thousand times smarter.’

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

As the lights came up on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy I found myself enjoying the nice, warm afterglow of a thinking man’s spy movie. Tomas Alfredson’s first film since Let the Right One In, an adaptation of John le Carré’s popular spy novel (which I haven’t read), is an impossibly slick drama about the ins and outs of Britain’s black ops bureau in the Cold War. It’s also incredibly dense, filled with twists and turns that reveal themselves quietly and without fanfare, which in my eyes made them all the more compelling. It demands your attention, this new motion picture, and rewards it with dramatic riches. But as I turned to my fellow audience members I realized that the general consensus was something altogether different than my own. Namely: “What the hell happened?”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a challenging movie, in the best possible way. If it’s not one of the ten best movies of the year, that has more to say about the overall quality of 2011’s releases than anything else. Certainly it’s the best pure (read: plausible) spy movie in ten years, since John Boorman’s mostly forgotten Tailor of Panama. Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, who along with his boss (John Hurt) is forced to resign from MI6 after a disastrous black ops mission that results in the death of a valuable agent, played by Mark Strong. But a year later, he’s called back to active duty to spy on his own people, and reveal the identity of a Russian mole. Among the suspects are such impressive British character actors as Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and recent Oscar-winner Colin Firth. On his side, he has a young agent played by Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, who has a secret of his own. And it all revolves around a missing, potentially rogue agent played by Tom Hardy, who may hold the key to revealing the traitor once and for all.

With this particularly vast cast, all of whom play key roles, following Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can feel a lot like work. The recognizable faces make it easier to keep the characters straight, but the plot relies heavily on events and actions that take place off-screen, and they really have to in order to keep the mystery alive. Often, the most important plot points are mentioned as casually as you would mention to your roommates that you’re out of milk. As the end of the film approaches and all is revealed, it’s easy to lose track of what’s supposed to be important and what’s merely window dressing. The film is a puzzle, and it’s not going to solve itself.

To some, that’s serious criticism. For fans of dense cinematic experiences like L.A. Confidential and Brick, however, it’s high praise. I’m in that latter group, and although Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy taxed my brain, it felt more like a healthy jog (not that I’ve ever enjoyed one) than a grueling marathon. The answers are all there, and it’s slick enough to warrant multiple viewings if you don’t pick up on everything the first time.

I suppose Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may be too erudite for its own good, as it favors internalized emotions over sweeping pronouncements, and quiet, masked storytelling over action sequences and easily quantified MacGuffins. It’s not a movie you can put on in the background while you eat dinner and chat about your day. It’s as close to cinematic literature as we’ve seen in a long time, and it’s truly gratifying, thanks in large part to subdued, brooding performances from Oldman, Firth and Cumberbatch, in particular, that are probably too subtle to be rewarded come Oscar season. Pity. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as exhilarating as any summer blockbuster, and a thousand times smarter.