Review: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

Gary Oldman in 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' (Focus Features)
Gary Oldman in 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' (Focus Features)

A mole is operating in the highest echelons of British intelligence, and it’s up to George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to ferret him out. Never mind that Smiley has been forced into retirement after a botched mission in Budapest left an agent dead, or that Smiley’s boss, known as Control (John Hurt) was also forced out and subsequently died.

Pressed back into service, with only young agent Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) and another retiree from the intelligence service to assist him, Smiley proceeds to dig deep as the Cold War continues to rage around him, unnoticed. His search revolves around the higher-ups who are still at the agency: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones). Alleline, especially, appears suspicious because he claims to have a secret source, only revealed to the head of the agency.

Smiley retraces the mission that went bad, taking a special interest in Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the elite agent who was shot. Reportedly, only he and Control knew about the mission, so who could have been responsible for leaking information? Smiley then turns his attention to the case of Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a lower-level operative who befriended a Russian woman with a desire to defect; she claimed to have vital information, which relates to the matter at hand.

Director Tomas Alfredson, who previously helmed ‘Let the Right One In,’ keeps things at a similar, measured pace. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan are credited with the screenplay, based on the novel by John le Carré. While I haven’t read the book, I’ve been assured by those in the know that the movie is a faithful adaptation.

Be that as it may, I found ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ difficult to follow upon first viewing. The plot shifts back and forth in time, with little clue as to the identity of individual characters and how they fit into the story. And even though a host of familiar actors are in the picture, it’s a period piece, and so they are not always immediately recognizable. Hotye Van Hoytema’s cinematography paints with a muted, restrained color palette, emphasizing greys, browns, and dull greens and blues. The editing by Dino Jonsäter — like Van Hoytema, a colloborator on Alfredson’s ‘Let the Right One In’ — initially seems unnecessarily jarring and difficult to follow.

The mystery, however, is a bit of subterfuge. ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is most definitely a character-based drama rather than a secret agent thriller. Putting aside who did what to whom during a second viewing, I appreciated to a much greater degree the main thrust of the material, which is much more interested in the effect of events upon people, as opposed to the other way around.

That’s the opposite of a thriller, in which the idea is to move move move. I love thrillers, but ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ reaches for, and largely achieves, something that is more subtle and more daunting, revealing the motivations of ambitious men, as well as the true heroes, those who are only concerned with personal integrity and the protection of a nation.

With that proviso in mind, the movie falls into place with precision. The intention of the filmmakers informs how it’s photographed and edited, and the performances by an ensemble of quality actors is always in service of the movie. Leading the excellent cast, Gary Oldman rarely says more than a few words at a time, and when he does, they have meaning beyond the vowels and consonants. He is a quiet presence, yet a formidable one, and the power that lies beneath his surface drives the picture forward to a satisfying conclusion.

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ expands from its limited engagement at the Angelika Dallas to a wider release across the Metroplex today.

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