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Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Premise: An adaptation of the 1979 TV mini-series. A veteran intelligence officer (Gary Oldman) is pulled out of retirement to expose a double agent in a British intelligence agency.

What Works: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a smart thriller. The picture is about people working in an intelligence establishment and instead of filling its time with shootouts and chases this is a film about the push and pull of human interaction and deducing individual agendas by inspecting the subtleties of human behavior. The filmmakers clearly enjoy this and smartly organize their story, occasionally flashing backward to provide context for a character relationship and hint at underlying motives or patterns of behavior. The film’s dense portrayal of the culture of this institution gives opportunities for some strong performances and there are some very interesting characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Toby Jones plays the senior intelligence officer and he manages to be a threatening presence despite the fact that he does little more than scowl and curse. Tom Hardy makes a supporting appearance as a compromised field agent while Benedict Cumberbatch plays an up and coming researcher and both actors do a great job playing men working their way through disillusionment and heartbreak. But the standout performance of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is provided Gary Oldman as the veteran intelligence officer. Oldman’s performance is a great example of less is more. He rarely talks and is very still in many scenes but that is key to making the character work; he is like a cat watching the mice play and when he finally strikes it is very satisfying.

What Doesn’t: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a challenge to follow. To be fair, this film is not trying to be The Bourne Ultimatum and should not be judged as such. This is a film more reminiscent of 1970s thrillers like All the President’s Men or The Conversation. The joy in a film like this is in the attention to detail and in the subtleties of each character’s behavior. That said, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has some serious shortcomings. The film’s compression of a nearly five hour mini-series into a two hour feature film results in an overstuffed picture and the film suffers most at the beginning and the ending. This is a film that thrusts the audience into the middle of the action with little effort to provide context. The result is a little like joining an ongoing television drama in the middle of its season; the viewer is confronted with a large cast of characters who have complex relationships and work in an environment in which hierarchy and procedure are important but the viewer has an overwhelming amount of work to do just trying to keep track of who is who and what they are doing. The ending is also rushed with the fates of some characters unclear and resolutions of other subplots coming apparently from nowhere. Although it runs just over two hours, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might actually have benefited from a slightly longer running time, if only to better settle the audience into the picture at the start and leave them on a more coherent conclusion.

Bottom Line: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a good film, especially for those who enjoy pictures that tease the brain. Although it is a little confusing it’s probably a film best enjoyed in multiple viewings anyway, which ought to clarify most of its story.

Episode: #373 (January 29, 2012)