I don’t naturally gravitate towards spy movies. But ever since I saw the trailer for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was desperately curious about it.
Ultimately, I was disappointed.
There is a mole in The Circus. (The Circus is supposed to be the highest branch in the SIS, I think, and the SIS is . . . like the British version of the CIA? Did I mention spy movies weren’t my specialty?) Anyway, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) was just forced into retirement by the Circus, but now they want him back to discover the traitor in their midst. And instead of giving them a one-fingered salute like anyone else would do, Smiley accepts. Because there wouldn’t be much in the way of plot if he didn’t.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starts off strong. The opening scene does what a good opening scene ought to do: introduces the basic problem and gets the audience into the action relatively quickly. I like the opening scene . . .
2. . . . but the opening credits? My God. Look, most people don’t even remember the opening credits of a movie unless they’re done in some spectacularly original fashion because . . . well, because they’re boring. No one cares about opening credits unless you or someone you like is actually getting named in them. Otherwise, you just sit there and watch some names scroll by and wait for the story to start with everyone else. And everyone’s fine with that. It’s part of the process. Overpriced candy, dumb commercials, previews, and opening credits. That’s just how it goes.
The opening credits for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy seem to drag on for years. I’ve seen plenty of montages during credits sequences before, but never one that managed to be quite so dull. Only one thing of any significance happened during that time—and it was over in the flash of an eye, which was unfortunate, actually, because it was also the only thing that really could have used some clarification.
After the film, my sister said to me, “Well, those credits sure set the pace of the movie, didn’t they?” And yes siree, Bob. They most certainly did.
3. See, one of my big problems with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that it manages the somewhat paradoxical task of moving both too fast and too slow simultaneously. Perhaps you think that’s impossible, but Tomas Alfredson somehow makes it happen anyway. I suppose if you’ve already read the John le Carre novel or watched the original BBC miniseries, you might not feel left in the dark about a good number of things. If you, like me, are a complete newcomer to the story . . . well, prepare for a difficult time ahead.
4. That isn’t to say that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is absolutely dreadful. With a cast like that, how could it be? There are so many hugely talented actors here, and they are at top form in this film. I will discuss a few of them. If I discussed everyone, we’d be here till next Tuesday, and I don’t think my place of employment would appreciate that.
What I like about Gary Oldman in general is that he really looks and acts differently from movie to movie—which is the sort of thing you’d think an actor would have to be good at it, but I suppose we all know that’s not really the case. Oldman’s a bit of a chameleon, though, and while I think he’s made some very strange decisions in the past (in both how he approaches a role and what role he chooses to take) . . . you gotta respect, that guy commits. (Red Riding Hood being the only exception I can think of, offhand.)
George Smiley is probably the most restrained performance I’ve ever seen from Oldman, but in a good way—Smiley is a very smart, very efficient, very thorough sort of man. He also has quite the capacity for ruthlessness—not that he’s physically violent, mind you, just that he will say anything or use anyone to get done what needs to be done. There’s a quiet sort of cruelty to Oldman’s performance that I really like a lot.
It’s interesting to watch Cumberbatch in this movie after having seen the first season of Sherlock. Sherlock, of course, is fairly cold and distant and seems almost alien in his knowledge—you might like the character, find him but compelling, but I doubt very much that you really empathize with him, at least more than you empathize with John Watson. Here in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, however, Cumberbatch easily plays the most sympathetic character in the whole film, and his performance is brilliant. He runs the gamut of emotions in this role, and I find each and every one of them believable.
I’m not entirely certain if this character is a gigantic stretch for Colin Firth—I know he’s had meatier roles to work with—but I like him in this regardless. He’s just so very . . . superior . . . in this role. And like most of this cast, he can do quite a lot with a little. Which, frankly, is kind of necessary for this film.
I’d have to see other interpretations of the character to be sure, but I’m going to take a stab here and say that I wouldn’t find Ricki Tarr to be terribly sympathetic if it wasn’t for Tom Hardy’s excellent performance. Another actor might have played Tarr as spineless, or as someone shifts all the blame and constantly makes excuses, but I really bought into the sincerity of Hardy’s expressions, and that won me over on a character I’m not sure I’d have had much use for otherwise.
David Dencik is probably the only main player in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I hadn’t heard of prior to seeing this movie. (My knowledge of Swedish films is fairly limited. That is, I think I’ve seen, um, two.) But I really liked Dencik here. He appears to play a snivelly bastard with ease, and like the rest of the cast, he’s great at emoting, particularly when it comes to fear.
5. I also like how the film is shot, how it really looks—to me—like a film from the 1970’s. Admittedly, I wasn’t around for the 70’s, in England or otherwise, but the colors and tones do remind me of a movie from that decade. I read on IMDb that The Conversation was an influence for the look of this film, and I can totally see that.
Course, if I remember correctly, I had some problems with that movie too.
6. See, I could deal with Tinker Tailor’s slow build . . . yes, it’s problematic when you don’t really get interested in a movie until it’s already halfway over, but I could have gotten over that if I thought the film earned its build with a rich story, complex relationships, and a fantastic ending. Unfortunately, a lot of those things were lacking here.
The potential’s all there. They have these characters, these men who’ve been together in the trenches—so to speak—and the writers tell you a bit about them, who’s close to who, who betrays the other, but the film never really spares the time to actually show the relationships, to build them onscreen. I’ll be more explicit about this in the Spoiler Section, but the conclusion of this film would make for an exceptionally bigger impact if the audience really bought into these friendships and partnerships—and I just can’t. Despite the talent of this cast, I just don’t believe there’s enough time given to the characterization of any of these people. For a film that spends a great deal of time on flashbacks, you learn surprisingly little about these men, and I definitely think that’s a problem in a movie as slow as this one.
7. And structure’s a bit of a problem, too. Those flashbacks are definitely a part of that. Also certain reveals—both little and large ones—seem very oddly placed within the space of the film. The timeline’s hard to keep track of—it’s difficult to know who’s doing what when—and then there’s just one storyline in particular (we’ll call it Subplot A) that feels shoved in and badly balanced with the rest of the film.
Some of these things might be overcome with repeat viewings . . . but not all of them.
8. Another issue: one particularly problematic character (I’d prefer not to say who (s)he is until the Spoiler Section) who, as far as I can tell, serves absolutely no purpose in this film. At all. Whatsoever. I have no idea why the actor/actress agreed to be in this film, if (s)he was going to be given that little to work with.
9. When this movie is on, though, it’s on. The only good thing to recommend in this movie’s pace is how much the violence stands out because of it. You wouldn’t think it, going in, but there some surprising moments of serious gore that hit hard because of the quiet atmosphere. It’s all talk, talk, talk, ENTRAILS, talk, talk, talk, talk . . .
10. Finally, almost as horrific as exposed intestines? The clothes. Fashion was a rather frightening thing in the 1970’s, wasn’t it? Benedict Cumberbatch wears this one tie that made me want to hide behind the safety of a crucifix. Also, pretty much anything Tom Hardy wears is a little alarming.
And speaking of those two . . . I don’t believe that Cumberbatch or Hardy are natural blonds, but Cumberbatch wears his blond decently enough. (I believe his natural color is a bit more auburn.) Hardy, on the other hand . . .
Men this attractive should not have to do this to their hair. Not all of us are meant to be blonds. I’m certainly not. Apparently, Tom Hardy isn’t, either. Stop trying to ruin my eye candy for me, filmmakers!
If you want to cheat (cheater, CHEATER!!!) and find out who the mole is now, continue onwards . . .
Well, it’s Colin Firth, but we’ll come back to that.
First. The movie begins with Control (John Hurt) telling Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) that there is a mole somewhere in Circus, and that he needs to go on this super secret spy mission to figure out who it is. And I’m watching this, thinking, Hmm, okay. Well, Mark Strong’s probably going to die then, because I’m PRETTY sure that’s supposed to be Gary Oldman’s job in this movie.
But when Jim does get shot in the back about five minutes later, I’m like, Well . . . okay. I mean, I guess that had to happen, but I could have sworn he had more scenes in the trailer. Man. I HATE it when they do that.
In actuality, Jim isn’t really dead. Everyone just thinks he is. The audience finds out about this twist pretty early on, actually, maybe forty minutes into the film, which seems a little strange. I mean, it’s not a bad reveal. You’d think they might have saved it. But then, we wouldn’t get this completely random fucking subplot with Jim (who is now a teacher) and Weird Kid, who is an observant loner just like Jim was, presumably. I mean, the thing could work—maybe—if it had more time to develop, but it’s really just a few scenes that get shoved into the narrative and feel awkward and clumsy because of it.
Anyway, so Control and Smiley (Control’s right-hand man) are forced into retirement because of this whole debacle. During the neverending opening credits, Control dies in a hospital, which seems . . . er . . . sudden. Was he sick? Did someone inject him with something? A few minutes ago, he was talking in Circus, and now he’s spasming out and dead? I mean, there must have been a line of exposition somewhere in that opener, but I sure didn’t hear it. I’m assuming it’s supposed to be natural causes (since Smiley’s never like, “You killed my friend, you bastard!” or anything) but it all does seem a trifle abrupt.
So Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) becomes the new head of Circus—Jones is very convincing as a pompous, little shit—and starts busting out some serious Soviet intelligence, codename: Witchcraft. (We later find out that the intelligence really isn’t all that important, but I can’t even be bothered to get into that right now.) At the same time, Smiley gets brought out of retirement to start hunting around for that mole. The suspects:
Esterhase (Poor Man)
George Smiley (Spy?)
Honestly, I’m not sure if they ever actually do refer to Smiley as ‘spy’ in the film itself, but I seem to remember that from one of the trailers I watched. Anyway, you may notice that Poor Man is conspicuously absent from the title of this film, presumably because Tinker Tailor Poor Man Soldier Spy is less alliteratively appealing. You might also infer that Roy Bland is a more important character than Toby Esterhause, since his codename actually made it into the damn title.
I cannot possibly explain enough how spectacularly wrong that inference would be.
Roy Bland is played by Ciarin Hinds, an Irish actor of some note—I’m not saying he’s an A-lister, exactly, but he’s also not just an extra, either—and his character might be the most wasted suspect in a mystery film, ever. Hinds has literally almost nothing to do in this movie. He has one or two scenes where he plays second fiddle to Toby Jones, but otherwise . . . nothing, nada, zip. He barely interacts with anyone. He appears to have no relationships with any of the other characters. He doesn’t do anything even remotely suspicious. The only reason you might suspect Bland of being the mole is that he is so damn inconsequential to the whole story, you might trick yourself into believing that there’s some giant plot twist, some big, “Fooled You!” moment that would actually validate his entire character’s existence.
Well, there’s not. Honestly, I think the Weird Kid that hangs around Jim might actually get more screen time.
And maybe you’re thinking, Okay, maybe they could have given Bland’s character a little more to do, but that’s hardly a capital offense, right? Well . . . I kind of disagree. Look, when there are about eight to ten suspects in your mystery movie, you can probably afford to get sloppy on one or two of them. But when you’ve only got five suspects . . . and really, let’s just make it four, because it’s pretty clear early on that there won’t be any “Oh my god, George Smiley is actually the big bad” twists (and thank Christ for that) . . . you really can’t slack off and just leave one guy on the john for an hour and a half, you know?
Cause even if you don’t understand what the hell is going on—and I suspect the politics of it all are better understood on a second viewing—it’s not really that hard to figure out who the bad guy is. Cause it’s not Smiley. It’s not Bland. And as soon as you see Esterhause pretty much wetting himself at the airstrip, you kind of know it’s not him. That really only leaves you with Percy and Bill, and while I guess it could have been Percy . . . well, it wouldn’t be much of a payoff, not to mention that he’s just so arrogantly overconfident that it seems kind of obvious he’s being played for a fool. I like to think I’m relatively good at solving fictional mysteries because of my need to overanalyze narrative structures, but when the light turns on and the traitor is revealed . . . there should be at least the possibility of surprise, right?
Okay, so that went on too long—where the hell was I? Right. Smiley’s on the job! Well, Smiley enlists poor Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch) as his inside man, which basically means Peter gets to do most of the dirty work without any kind of backup or protection. He also has to break up with his secret boyfriend. I want to give Peter a big hug.
In the midst of all this—and again, I do apologize if this gets confusing, but this is not an easy film to recap, and I simply don’t have the patience to cover all of the investigative work—Ricki Tarr breaks into Smiley’s place and spills the beans on what’s been going on with him these days, namely, that he was once a lowly Circus employee, just hanging out on assignment in Istanbul, when he happened across a woman, Irina, who had the biggest scoop of his life.
When Tarr went to send Circus the intel, however, Irina made him promise to ixnay on the olemay business, since she didn’t want the wrong person to find out. But low-man on the totem pole Tarr didn’t want the message to be ignored—not to mention, hoped for some personal credit and recognition—and mentioned the mole anyway. Naturally, Irina got snatched and Tarr got framed for being a traitor.
Like I said before, I don’t think I’d normally have had a lot of sympathy for Tarr’s situation—it’s kind of his own fault, after all—but Tom Hardy sells me on his remorse, as well as his determination to save Irina. He does seem very earnest about that, and he only helps Smiley later in exchange for Smiley’s help rescuing Irina from wherever she’s being held. Unfortunately, by this point, Irina is quite dead—something Tarr doesn’t know but Smiley does. I meant it when I said Smiley’s quite the cold bastard.
The only thing that does seem to get under Smiley’s skin is his ex-wife, Anne. I was a bit surprised, initially, when neither Anne nor the Big Bad Soviet Spy Karla showed up in this movie, but ultimately I was glad for it. I don’t think they’re really necessary, not for this particular story.
Now, Karla is the mystery dude that Traitor Bill is secretly reporting to, and he knows all about Smiley’s Achilles heel because Smiley told him. (Admittedly, he didn’t exactly mean to, and it was part of an investigation tactic, and Karla was supposed to die anyway, but come on, dude. You’re a spy. Get your head in the game.) So Karla orders Traitor Bill—in the past—to have an affair with Smiley’s wife, which keeps Smiley so headspun that he never sees Bill for what he really is. I’m not actually sure if this would work . . . you know a man’s sleeping with your wife, you think you’d be more determined than ever to see him go down for something . . . but hey, I’m not a Cold War spy, and everyone reacts differently to stress, I suppose.
Anyway, we find out about the affair in one of the many flashbacks. Pretty much all of the flashbacks are to this big party the Circus had back in the good old days, but the affair is really the only worthwhile thing we learn during it. I like the idea of the party flashback—seeing all these guys together in a jovial atmosphere kind of builds the feeling of betrayal later, or would, if I ever really bought into that whole good times feel—but, ultimately, it still feels like a missed opportunity. We could have gotten everyone’s perspectives on the party (instead of just George’s and Jim’s). We could have learned about Bland’s backstory. Maybe most importantly, we could have seen more between Jim and Bill, who are best friends and . . . maybe more?
We’ll get to that in a moment. George finds out that Jim is still alive and goes to visit him. Jim confirms that he was shot trying to figure out who the mole was, funny, since he never actually believed there was a mole in the first place, just Control being paranoid. Before he went on his trip, though, he apparently told buddy Bill what his mission was all about—which, okay, maybe not the best move for a fucking spy—and that’s why Jim got shot. He was just supposed to get kidnapped and, I don’t know, shaken up a little? Instead, he was nearly killed, tortured for information, and finally released, presumably due to Bill’s influence.
As far as their relationship with one another . . . I don’t believe it’s ever explicitly stated, but I kind of got the impression they were more involved with each other than just being friends—I guess because of this one look they share across a crowded room. It’s a good moment, and both Firth and Strong do their very best with the material, but . . . I think the material lets them down. The two are given virtually no other scenes together, so their whole relationship is just something we’re told, not shown. Smiley claims that Jim knew, deep down, that Bill was the traitor all along, but honestly, there’s really no evidence for that in the film. And when Jim, having been so betrayed, shoots Bill in the face at the end of the film . . . I don’t think the movie really earns the moment. The acting in the scene is well done. The visuals are great . . . Colin Firth’s face kinds of droops and melts a bit when the bullet hits his cheek, and the shot (no pun intended) sticks with you . . . but still, this is a hugely emotional moment for this movie, and it would have been ten times more powerful if the film had given as much time to their characters as it did to Smiley swimming around in a lake.
The film ends with Percy getting kicked out of power and George Smiley at the top of Circus. Applause is heard as he sits down at the head of the table. It’s a good conclusion to a very uneven film.
I’m skipping all kinds of important things—I’d like to finish this review before my hair goes entirely gray—but a few more notes before I make my ultimate conclusions.
1. I’m fucking amazed that both Ricki Tarr and Peter Guillam make it out alive. Ricki Tarr just seems to have Dead Meat written all over him, and Peter Guillam was easily my favorite character in the whole piece. My favorite characters in these kinds of films? Not a great track record, normally.
2. If America were ever to remake Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy . . . er, somehow . . . the discovery of the traitor would have gone down in a massive shoot-out. I’m not complaining about this, mind you. If there had been a massive shoot-out, you know who would have been killed? Peter.
3. The scene between Colin Firth and Gary Oldman near the end of the movie feels like it’s missing something, somehow. Again, I’m compelled by the actors in this scene, but just like in Jim and Bill’s relationship, I don’t quite buy the dynamic between these two characters. It’s not acting. It’s material. There’s just too much of the story that we aren’t getting in this particular retelling.
There’s so much potential here, so many things that I want to like, but the whole story feels squashed of its depth . . . and yet somehow still sluggish. I like the look of the film, and the stellar acting of everyone involved elevates the whole movie . . . but not enough to save it entirely.
If your job is to keep and extract secrets for a living, learn when to talk and when to keep your fucking mouth shut.