Title: Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik
If critics rave about a film, there will still certainly be some folks who aren’t into it and the same goes for a movie that gets panned; every movie out there is going to appeal to some, even if it’s a very select few. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a rather frustrating film to review as it’s a piece of immense quality, boasting impeccable performances, a strong sense of tone and a stellar score, but, in the end, there’s just no denying that this simply isn’t a film for me.
In 1973, in the midst of the Cold War, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 and code-named the Circus, is desperately trying to stay ahead of other nations via espionage. When the Circus’ top dog, Control (John Hurt), sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary and the mission goes horribly wrong, both Control and his #2, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forced out of the Circus.
Later on, after Control’s passing, Smiley is pulled back into the game in secrecy, asked to look into the government’s concern that a Soviet mole may have infiltrated the Circus. With the help of another agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), as well as key information brought home by the long absent field agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), Smiley strives to reveal the double agent who, thanks to Control, has been limited to just five options, Tinker – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Taylor – Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Soldier – Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man – Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and Smiley himself.
Surprisingly, I didn’t wind up needing my press notes as much as I thought for the sake of this synopsis, however, I do wish the packet came with a cheat sheet that delved into the details. Or perhaps event subtitles reminding the audience who’s who, what particular mission names referred to, etc. Apologies for the overwhelming use of first person in this review, but there’s really no other way to dissect Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as its reception is highly reliant on the viewer’s taste in subject matter.
As someone with a sadly light amount of knowledge of history and government agencies as well as someone who can have a rather tough time digesting thick British accents, much of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy went right over my head. In turn, I used so much effort trying to put the few pieces together that I was able to decipher, that ultimately, the only sensation the film left me with was exhaustion.
Then again, there’s no denying that the film packs a laundry list of incredibly engaging and natural performances. Oldman makes for a pitch-perfect lead, Smiley being the silent type, but the wheels in his head always turning. Cumberbatch stands out as well as Guillam, particularly when the stakes for him get intensely high. Hardy also delivers a standout performance specifically from my perspective because his character isn’t entirely consumed by the hunt for the mole; Tarr falls for a married woman abroad and that forbidden romance is simply something I can innately understand and genuinely feel. A similar sensation arises with Strong’s character who strikes up a relationship with a pudgy school outcast who earns your sympathy courtesy of his innocence, a sensation Strong’s character benefits from, too.
The men of the circus bear quite the presence, too, but, of the bunch, it’s Jones’ Alleline that rises above, not only because he’s the most forceful, but because Jones exudes a noteworthy amount of control over the character, making his outbursts powerful, yet quite menacing, too. Then there’s the room in which the Circus meetings take place, which manages to become a bit of a character of its own. Moving from the more expansive office space into the brightly colored, albeit sparse, soundproof room is the ultimate scene transition, completely changing the mood via a mere set change.
Clearly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has many successful elements and is most certainly not a bad movie, but, as previously stated, there’s no denying that this film just isn’t for me. While I did understand the general plot of trying to find the mole in the Circus, it was nearly impossible to keep track of the details, which made the pacing of the film rather jagged. Before I knew it, Smiley had wrapped one element of his investigation and moved on to another. This problem tainted the characters quite a bit, too, and few became real people. They quite literally resembled mere chess pieces being moved around a board.
Technically, while it’s nice that director Tomas Alfredson tries to infuse his authorial expressivity through a seemingly well planned shot list and shooting techniques, the large majority of his camera movements feel very heavy handed, as if Alfredson is merely showing us this story rather than letting us experience it for ourselves. On the other hand, the score is downright outstanding. The majority of the film is backed by orchestral tunes, but each with their own variation, some tending towards blues and jazz while others rely heavily on a rather sweet clarinet and piano combination.
So, ultimately, do I recommend Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? In this case, it’s absolutely impossible to offer an expansive assessment as this film’s reception depends entirely on the viewer as an individual. Whether you’re someone with the head for an intricate spy scenario, minus the James Bond-style action adventure components, or not, if you give Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy a shot, I recommend going into it on a full night’s rest and perhaps even an added cup of coffee.