Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

December, 2011, Thriller

Directed by:Tomas Alfredson


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


A funereal pall hangs over every scene in this handsomely mounted homage to John La Carre’s epic novel of Cold War espionage. Written at the height of nuclear tensions among the world’s super powers, the book was made into a 6 hour miniseries for British television 33 years ago featuring Alex Guinness in the role of George Smiley, the apparently bland genius who ferrets out a traitor inside the British Secret Service. The book and television series were so popular that La Carre went on to write two more novels based on Smiley’s subsequent exploits , anticipating the popularity of the current mystery/trilogy  “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”. 


The screenwriting team of Peter Straughan & Bridget O’Connor (who’ve collaborated on other scripts over the past decade) pare down the intricate & elaborate plot of La Carre’s novel to near incomprehension, but thanks to the firm control of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson and a gifted cast of familiar British faces (Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Mark Strong & Ciaran Hinds) Tinker Tailor makes up in enthralling atmosphere what it lacks in storyline coherence. What comes through quite clearly is a pervasive sense of dread; the spies who work for Her Majesty’s government recognize they’re no longer principal players on the world stage, forced to play second fiddle to the dominant power and financial resources of the U.S. while dealing with the insidious and resourceful strength of the KGB, Soviet Russia’s spy network which has “turned” a senior British intelligence officer into a double agent. Tinker’s labyrinthine plot hurls the audience from London to Budapest to Istanbul & Paris before the methodical, often anal-retentive Smiley unmasks the culprit among his smugly sophisticated colleagues. To accomplish this task, he relies on Peter Gilliam, (Benedict Cumberbatch) a junior officer in the Service who, because of age and length of service, cannot possibly be the guilty party. With Gilliam’s brawn at his disposal, Smiley meticulously traces the web of circumstantial evidence that at one point or another seems to implicate each of the 4 likeliest suspects. When Smiley pounces, he does so with a vengeance as cold-blooded as it is merciless.


As Smiley, Oldman steps outside a carefully constructed screen persona of menacing villains (JFK, Dracula, Batman Begins) to present audiences with a courtly gentleman whose sense of decorum slowly discloses a steel-willed bureaucrat capable of seducing others with his soft voice and gently plodding manner. He’s ably surrounded by the work of Hurt, Firth et. al. whose public-school snobbery is exceeded only by various expressions of their venality. Tinker Tailor suggests that career spooks are nearly as unlikable when they’re on your side as they are when serving the opposition.


It’s uniformly superb ensemble cast notwithstanding, the real stars of this movie are a trio of established technical pros: cinematographer  Hoyte Van Hoytema (The Fighter), Production Designer Maria Djurkrovic (Mamma Mia) and Supervising Art Director Tom Brown (Saving Private Ryan). Underscoring Alfredson’s persistent commitment to dreary authenticity, the crew & cast bathe this film in an almost palpable ambiance of missed opportunity, pervasive guilt about comrades lost and the dreadful premonition that what lies ahead won’t be terribly different than the corruption Smiley finally excises.


That accomplishment, the ability to create a mood so pervasive of the film’s underlying message that it infuses every scene with a consistent intensity is what makes this movie so electrifying, despite its often indecipherable storyline. Here’s a film that would have been well served were it 50% longer, so perfectly pitched are its many commendable parts.


The Verdict? A gem which unfortunately loses much of its potential impact by being too condensed. Don’t bother trying to tie the plot’s various strands together - - just sit back and allow yourself to be bathed in two hours and 7 minutes of brilliant filmmaking.

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