Permeated by an atmosphere of acrid second-hand cigarette smoke and brooding graininess, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an espionage thriller that fails to thrill until its second half. Alternatingly boring and intriguing, even the actors seem to be either horribly half asleep or praiseworthy in their understated performances – or maybe the latter is because of the impressive pedigree?
True enough, the acting is top notch stuff and it’s easy to see why when you’ve got actors like Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones and Mark Strong. The problem is that the characters they’re portraying are so dull hence hard to engage with.
Adapted from John le Carré’s novel of the same name, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is set in 1973 in the midst of the Cold War and follows George Smiley (Oldman), a retired intelligence officer for British Intelligence (referred to as ‘the Circus’ throughout the film) who’s brought in to conduct a secret investigation to uncover the identity of a Soviet spy. It’s a relatively simple premise but the filmmakers manage to mess it up by presenting it in an unnecessarily complex and convoluted manner.
This is the kind of movie where, 90 minutes in, you’ll still be trying to figure out who is who and what their relationship is with everyone else. It doesn’t help that the big reveal is less of a ‘Whoa!’ and more of a muted ‘Oh, so it was that person’. It’s completely arbitrary; I feel like it could have been any of the prime suspects but it just happened to be the one that it was.
While I was nonetheless able to follow the story without too much difficulty (thinking caps on people!) that doesn’t stop me from pointing out my issues with it. Indeed, I find it odd that director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) skips over important plot points in mere seconds but happily includes lengthy and entirely unnecessary segments such as Smiley walking slowly from place to place, Smiley staring at stuff and Smiley swimming in a lake. And what’s up with the subplot about the lonesome, chubby lad in glasses? I understand the point but surely the time could have been put to better use elsewhere? There’s simply too much meandering and it really begins to drag, particularly during the film’s first half.
Fortunately, things start to come together in the second half. Tom Hardy (Warrior) is genuinely engaging as Ricki Tarr, an agent accused of defecting to the Soviets. His character becomes more important at around this time and it’s at this point that the plot gains some focus and coherence. Don’t expect any action though: if Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is at the action-oriented end of the spy spectrum then you’ll find Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as far from it as possible. This is a story about brain more than brawn, and it expects as much of its audience in return.
It’s clear that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s strength is undoubtedly its period production design and terrific cinematography. Throw in some classy actors and a decent score and what you get is a splendid technical achievement in filmmaking that positions itself on the murky line that lies somewhere between ‘totally boring’ and ‘a triumph of sophisticated cinema’. Take your pick.