The Good: Acting, Characters, Plot, Setting
The Bad: A little slow on some of the pacing.
The Basics: Engaging, if not thrilling, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a complicated journey for one man who uncovers a dramatic lapse of security in Cold War Britain.
I can think of no movie from Oscar Pandering Season that I actually wanted to see more than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It was out in limited release in time for it to be considered for the Oscars, but by the time it came to a wide release locally, the theater cycle was heavy in spy action films. When my wife and I fell for the hype of Haywire (reviewed here!), I snuck off to see Safe House (reviewed here!) on my own. But, I could not convince her to go see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with me before it disappeared from theaters. So, despite Gary Oldman not winning the Best Actor Oscar, I wanted to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This morning, I was finally able to.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy movie that is set in the early 1970s, but manages to feel vital and interesting even now. Set in the pre-internet days of Cold War British intelligence, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy includes slews of flashbacks to piece together an intelligence mystery that refuses to insult the intelligence of the viewer. Most impressive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes what could be a plot-heavy mystery and makes it into a determined character study of a man whose life has been devoted to Intelligence. That lonely, often heartbroken, life makes for a surprisingly compelling film that is engaging to watch.
When British Intelligence sends a spy to Budapest, Hungary, to get the name of a highly-placed mole in British Intelligence, he is killed. Jim’s death is the excuse needed by those in power to get rid of Control. When Control is kicked out, his right-hand man, George Smiley, is ousted as well. When Control is killed shortly thereafter, Smiley, employing Peter on the inside, is tasked with finding the mole himself. What follows is Smiley’s search, pieced together with remembrances from his time before Jim’s death.
Smiley’s search gets him embroiled in tales of spies, like Ricki, who romances the wife of a man he is spying upon. Ricki’s story reveals how his attempt to give Britain the name of the mole led to the Soviet’s cleaning house years before. While Smiley’s sources all search for “treasure” (intelligence that is of game-changing quality), he follows the clues to uncover who from that period in the Agency’s history could be the mole. Smiley’s search focuses on the murder of Jim and the irregularities of the case that ousted him and Control and by digging into that incident, he gets closer to the identity of the mole.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a slow, methodically-building film, not a fast-paced spy thriller where truths are revealed amid gunshots and car chases. As such, the movie is appropriately low-tech, with the characters slowly piecing together the truths they seek. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy devotes a lot of time to recreating well the time and place of the film. Setting is exceptionally important. So, for example, an agent taking a transcription of a phonetap gets distracted by the music playing in the background on the tap. Things like bags getting checked in and slow correspondences make Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy feel like it is set in a perfectly real past.
But while a lot of films set in the past fail to thrill me –World War II movies, for example, usually leave me shrugging because no matter what happens in the film, I know how the War ended and the enduring themes of most WWII movies are lessons I have already learned - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy left me consistently intrigued. This is a process story and the hunt is an engaging one. Knowing that the Cold War lasted well beyond the early 1970s, I had no idea exactly where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was going. In other words, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could be the story of an operation that extended or shortened the conflict between the Western world and the Soviet Union or it could be about how such an attempt was stymied. It has been a long, long time since a movie left me with enough to surprise me as that.
But because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a process story, the journey is much more important than the destination. The film succeeds because of the characters and the acting, in addition to the plot and depth of the setting. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is dominated by George Smiley and his detective work. Studying the movements, ambitions and actions of those close to the killing of Jim Prideaux, George evaluates and discounts the evidence to uncover the mole. Smiley becomes an engaging character the moment that it becomes clear that his wife, Ann, is not simply leaving him over him being a spy. Her affection for Bill Haydon is revealed by director Tomas Alfredson first in a simple change in the camera focus several scenes before Smiley discovers it.
Smiley’s professional determination is balanced with his sense of personal loss. But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy uses that lack of a personal life to allow Smiley to make judgments n one else is able to make. And he is interesting. Unlike most modern movies, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not overly graphic in much of its most disturbing content. The torture of Jim, for example, is exceptionally brief and shown only long enough to illustrate what the torture was as opposed to making the viewer truly live through the interrogation. Smiley’s interviewing technique is methodical, professional and much more engaging to watch than one might guess.
Much has been written about Gary Oldman’s acting in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He is as good as everyone has claimed. Perhaps the sterling moment of Oldman’s acting is the subtle way he, as Smiley, swallows when Ricki demands his lover as payment for one last mission, knowing that she has already been killed. Oldman is exceptional in his subtlety and Smiley embodies a professional, determined intelligence agent because of him.
But the real acting surprise is Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr. Hardy does an exceptional job with the physical acting. When he is interrogated by Smiley, Hardy gives Tarr some great physical moments, moving his hands nervously and in a realistic fashion that enhances the reality of his character’s situation. He steals the scenes he is in, which is a real accomplishment for a film that includes actors like John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds.
Now on DVD, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy includes deleted scenes, an engaging commentary track and featurettes. The deleted scenes do not add anything essential to the film, but they are fun to watch. The commentary track, though, is a pretty thorough documentary by the director and Gary Oldman. Even without the bonus features, it is, quite simply, an impressive and engaging spy thriller that is subtle and rich in the details and anyone who wants to see an impressive collection of British actors performing at the top of their craft owes it to themselves to pick up and watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy!
For other works with Tom Hardy, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: Nemesis
For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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