Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


Tomas Alfredson
Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan (Novel: John le Carré)
127 min.
Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Arthur Nightingale, Simon McBurney, Amanda Fairbank-Hynes, Konstantin Khabenskiy
MPAA Rating
R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language

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Source Material

Geroge Smiley is not James Bond. George Smiley is not Jason Bourney. George Smiley is…Gary Oldman.

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oldman plays aging spymaster George Smiley, a quiet, unassuming man whose keen observational skills have led to decades of success within the halls of MI-6. His legacy is brought to a halt when, paired with his longtime friend Control (John Hurt), he is forced into early retirement. The arrangement doesn’t agree with him. What will fill the void work once possessed? Swimming in a local pond for his health? Sitting reservedly in his home waiting for some sort of excitement? Oldman’s subtle expressions display for the audience that retirement is not a mode Smiley should be stuck in.

After Control’s shocking death, it is revealed to George that he was secretly working on a case that involved a double agent in the highest echelons of the organization. One of the four men who forced him and Control out of the operation (along with anyone else friendly to their cause), has been delivering intelligence to the Soviets. Set during the Cold War, you can imagine how dangerous such a betrayal is.

Although George’s focus is on those four individuals, he finds that even he was a suspect, which doesn’t surprise him nor does it deter him. Of the four he is investigating, with nicknames Tinker, Tailor and Soldier among others, are Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), a self-conscioius agent who seems more like a toady than a spy; Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), the brainchild behind a newly approved plan to funnel information on the Americans to the Russians in exchange for information on Britain; Bill Haydno (Colin Firth), a charming agent able to convince others easily of his beliefs; and Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), a brash, military-oriented gentleman whose quietude masks a deep passion for his job. Any of the four could be behind the treason, but through careful deliberation and without getting dusty in the field, George slowly unravels the mystery to clear Control’s name and expose a traitor.

Unlike the Jason Bond or Jason Bourne films, there is virtually no action in evidence in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And apart from a handful of graphic scenes, the film plays out more like a British mystery drama than an actual spy thriller.

Oldman has no equal in the cast, though a case could be made for supporting player John Hurt who’s been doing excellent work for decades. Hurt’s Control, although infrequently on display, is a fascinating, character of intense conviction. Hurt gives the audience the absolute understanding that the country comes before either his job or his friends or his safety. Oldman by comparison is completely calm, focused on the details instead of the bigger picture. Decades of work on the job has given him an understanding of mankind’s ability to make mistakes, his own ability to follow a trail to its natural conclusion and no compunctions about getting the job done. His more corporate-minded associates simply wouldn’t be able to operate on this level.

And operate they don’t, at least performance wise. Mark Strong, who plays a rogue agent sent to collect information, but getting shot in the process, is adequately stoic, but seems otherwise uninteresting. Whether his character is purposefully thin I’m not certain, but even in attempting to give him a relateable quality (his scenes with the young school boy who befriends him) seem unnecessary. Colin Firth is also not up to his best. Whether it’s Firth overload from the past few years of fantastic performances or not, Firth seems out of his element here, acting in what seems to be another film. The act isn’t bad by any stretch, but it doesn’t equate fairly to his fellow actors.

Dencik, Jones and Hinds are all superb in their brief, underdeveloped performances, but the more experienced thespians find themselves inferior to two relatively newer talents. Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s currently starring as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC miniseries, is commanding in his many scenes as the embattled assistant to George Smiley. His character Peter Guillum must tread carefully on the line between patriot and defector as he spies on his own agency trying to obtain the unauthorized information George needs to resolve the case. A pair of infiltrations into the agency showcase Alfredson’s command of tension.

Tom Hardy, who plays another of George’s associates, Ricki Tarr, has gotten himself mixed up in an affair with a foreign asset all while secretly working on Control’s theory. When he returns to George in hiding, Ricki is focused more on the love of the Hungarian woman taken from him by Soviet agents, adding the only romantic entanglement in the entire film. Even though it’s clear that the entire subplot is wasted, Hardy shows character as one of the finest discoveries of 2011.

And while the cast is predominantly male, Kathy Burke more than holds her own as George’s longtime confidant Connie Sachs, one of a slew of Control-loyal workers forced into early retirement. Her brief scene is a compelling use of screen time and is one of the reasons the Oscar’s Supporting Actress category was created. She provides key information that pushes the plot along and her pivotal performance is every bit as understated and lived-in as Oldman’s.

As I’ve mentioned before, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn’t a quick paced film, getting to the end takes a great deal of time. The journey is filled with long bouts of silence, contemplative moments and an assured pacing that could only be delivered in the hands of Swedish auteur Tomas Alfredson whose brilliant Let the Right One In took the same care with its subject. He doesn’t mind a long shot with virtually no dialogue, which only strengthens the few moments we’re treated to it.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy features a fine, but understated performance by Gary Oldman whose career is filled with distinctive class. While his performance here is certainly award caliber, his lack of emotional catharsis or a scene where he gets to let go isn’t the showy kind of acting that gets that recognition. His subtlety is his only handicap, at least when it comes to getting the recognition he has long deserved.
Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: None
Probables: Actor (Gary Oldman), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score
Potentials: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Kathy Burke), Editing, Cinematography
Unlikelies: None
Review Written
December 6, 2011

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