Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

jason stives gets caught up in a web of spies …

It’s very hard to pass off espionage thrillers in the modern-day film world thanks to a constant expectation of bells and whistles in all suspense-based movies. Spy films were far more justified when the threat seemed real some 40 years ago, but now it’s hard to find the right audience for these ideas. Then a film like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes out and shows that even in a world bamboozled with big budget expectations, a suspenseful thriller about people who push papers more than they carry guns can be just as good as any everyday action film. The film, an adaptation of the acclaimed John Le Carre spy novel is a wonderful slice of Cold war decadence, one that focuses more on its words and information than its cloak-and-dagger framework.

The film is centered around George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a paper pushing but trustworthy operative in the Circus, the codename of British Intelligence. With a gimmicky last name but no-nonsense ease to his quiet exterior, he is the go-to-guy that everyone knows is the real deal and the last man you want to cross. When word gets round that a top operative in the Circus is secretly a mole for the Soviet Union, Smiley is brought back out of retirement to find the traitor and unravels some treacherous secrets about his former employers that can undermine the whole of the British commonwealth.

Overall, the film is a splendid piece of cinema, but the key to Tinker Tailor is the performances. The movie boasts an impressive all star British cast with Oldman’s George Smiley at the center. Smiley is a blank slate compared to other roles Oldman has been known for, and instead of chewing the scenes with a larger-than-life performance, he presents the audience with an enigma. Smiley is quite docile and silent for the first 20 minutes, but once he begins to lay his expert operative work into place, he progresses into a man who seeks truth thoroughly and never lets personal vendettas get in the way of duty and honor — or at least that’s what we hope is the case. With his thick-rimmed glasses and stone slate of a face, Smiley is an understanding man but one that does what is right in the most unfortunate situations.

The rest of the cast includes the many heads of the Circus including: Colin Firth, Toby Jones, David Dencik and John Hurtas well as Mark Strong as doomed MI6 operative Jim Prideaux. Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a standout performance as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s aide and a young ally in the dangerous world of espionage. Tom Hardy once again shines as Ricky Tarr, the man responsible for leaking the information about the mole in the Circus. All play their respected parts well, some more than others, and the vagueness of some of their appearances in the film heightens their potential for being a spy.

What makes Tinker Tailor so awe-inspiring is its lack of frills and action which comes from the secretive nature of the Cold War. Former co-worker Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke) tells George Smiley early on in the film how fun the Circus was when there was an actual war going on, something that British men could be proud of. In a way, this is what makes up the storied 40-year history of the Cold War, one of precision and waiting on pins and needles for even a sneeze from the Soviets. It made men lifeless vessels that are devoid of their jobs but not of their emotions, even though they learn to control them with every passing day. George Smiley has learned to repress said emotions, but we see in countless flashbacks that the thoughts of a cheating wife and a life that was full of getting answers and looking both ways is still a prominent fixture in his life. This is why his interactions with Peter Guillam work so well in context, someone who is fresh minded in the field and is just getting use to what the real dirty tricks of the trade are in this stalemate landscape. When Guillam is forced to cut ties in his life that could be greatly damaged by his involvement in this investigation, it’s heartbreaking but a price that has to be paid in such a high stake situation.

The key to watching Tinker Tailor is to completely devoid yourself of thinking this is an action-based espionage film, it’s a thinker film, one that relies solely on dialogue and the excitement of knowing the risks of this story lie in filing cabinets,, not loaded pistols in dark alleys. The Cold War was indeed more about hunting down traitors in secrecy more than its public affair and in the trench-coat world of 1970s U.K., everything was hush hush which makes the air of secrecy in the story the more claustrophobic. There is indeed very little action and any scenes that involve some kind of action are brief but brutally implemented. The spy film genre is one that has since gone quiet amid the few exceptions like James Bond and stateside in action-packed franchises like the Bourne and Mission: Impossible filns. With that in mind, it’s refreshing to see something that works hard to be a smashing espionage thriller without any car chases or shootouts, just the notion of knowing around every corner could lurk a traitor or a spy.

In a world that is no longer black and white but shades of gray, director Tomas Alfredson does a great job of creating a colorless world where bright shades of life only seep through in small doses. Imploring the same techniques he used in the acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In, Alfredson creates an atmospheric world where the air is always dense and filled with suspicion. A lot of elements used by Bergman and Hitchcock are clearly used here and a constant sense of voyeurism reminded me greatly of the tension a film like The Conversation invokes.

My only complaint, and this may be in part due to the source material, is the rushed nature of the film’s climax and resolution. While Tinker Tailor is by no means a whodunit riddled with clues for the audience to figure out, the outcome feels a bit expected even though Alfredson does a great job of hiding your personal suspicion of who the mole really is. In a way, this may just be a reminder of how the war never ends and regardless of finding one flaw in the system, there are always more to be found. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a chance thriller that is constantly on the gas when it comes to its attention to suspicious activity and its careful precision in top-notch performances. While it may not be for everyone looking for that small spattering of gun-toting good guys and bad guys in their movie going life, it is a film that takes great care in reminding the world of how dangerous it can be even its hidden away from view of the public.

Rating: 9 out of 10 (Outstanding)