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'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' review - Beautiful, elegant, but woefully complicated

Not all movies make sense without repeat viewings. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of them. While I loved the general vibe, cinematic stlyle, music, and performances the first time I saw it, the details of the plot eluded me. I’ve now seen it twice. I wish I could say that I’ve put it all together, but I still have more questions than I’m comfortable admitting. 

Director Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) take on John Le Carre’s classic spy novel is, in many ways, quite good, but it spends almost no time explaining who its dozen plus characters are and how they all interact. The onus is on you to figure out who they are and what they’re up to. Because of this, it is not a movie for everyone. It’s kind of like jumping into your first game of chess without any directions on how to play. I don’t recommend you spend money to see Tinkor Tailor unless you’re prepared to piece together a mystery thriller that is so msyterious that I haven’t entirely figured it out after two viewings. 

The plot (I think)

Here’s what I do know: It’s the early 1970s and there is a mole at the very top of British intelligence. Four men are under suspicion, all serving under the guise of Control (John Hurt), who is chief of the Circus, the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Agency. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is his right-hand man. Control gives these four men the following code names: Percy Alleline is “Tinker” (Toby Jones); Bill Hayden is “Tailor” (Colin Firth); Roy Bland is “Soldier” (Ciaran Hinds); and Toby Esterhase is “Poorman” (David Dencik). He then sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to get information from a Hungarian general, but Prideaux ends up getting shot and the whole incident causes a shuffling of the top ranks of the Circus. Smiley and Control are forced out and the four suspected Russian traitors take over as the heads of British Intelligence. This happens in the first few minutes. 

Things aren’t looking good until a low-ranking agent on a mission in Russia, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), sends a message to Intelligence that Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) intercepts, confirming that there is definitely a mole at the top of the Circus. And so he brings Smiley (again, Gary Oldman) out of retirement to investigate. Smiley’s right-hand man is Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). The investigation moves all around Europe and ropes in half a dozen (or more) supporting actors, all of who play a pivotol role in cracking the mystery. 

Style and Gary Oldman

You’re going to have to figure out the rest of the plot on your own time. The main draw here is the style of the film, which is slow moving, but quite intimate at times. Though the film is fairly solemn, there are half a dozen well-timed laughs that will get everyone in the theater giggling. There is intelligent design behind this maze of a mystery. 

The style of the film, which has a lot of somewhat nebulous shots, dialogue, and character glances littered through it feels like a lot of good 1970s movies. Filmmakers didn’t used to be as overt about their intentions as they are in modern Hollywood films, for better and worse. For example, there are hintings of repressed homosexuality and infidelity throughout the film, though it’s never brought up as anything more than a hush hush affair, much like it would have been during the 70s.

Style would be nothing without good actors and performances, of which Tinker Tailor has many. I cannot think of a better cast and there are some truly great, tense moments in the film. To figure out who the spy is, you quickly begin dissecting even the most minute of facial expressions and body motions: hand movements, eye twitches, etc. Anything might give the mole away.

I’ve always been a fan of Gary Oldman ever since I saw him in Air Force One (yes, he was in many movies before that), but here he takes on more dimension than I’ve seen him, but using less words and movement. Extended scenes have us looking straight into Smiley’s eyes as he tries to solve the mystery. Oldman does very much with quite little. I wouldn’t be surprised if an Oscar nomination comes his way. 

I still want answers

Going in, I was expecting a film where phone lines were tapped and code names like “Tailor” were repeated over and over between investigafters, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an all together unique experience. 

I remember the first time I saw Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. There are more than a dozen major characters, each of them has multiple names, and the movie takes place in its own world, full of locations to memorize. In this respect, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is worse than the Tolkein film. You can make it through Lord of the Rings and enjoy the thrills even if you don’t entirely know what’s going on 100 percent of the time, but since this is a mystery, leaving the theater with questions is almost worse than not seeing it at all. There are no fun orc or troll battles to distract you from what you don’t know, just an ever increasing urgency to catch up to a plot that refuses to give audiences any insight into its workings. 

I believe that I like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I cannot entirely tell you that for certain, which is rare. What I do know is that I cannot recommend you see it unless you have read the book or are prepared to do a little research before hand. Looking up the British Secret Intelligence Service on Wikipedia and the character names on IMDB would be a good start.

Rating:  (Decent)

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