Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, A Bunch of Other British Dudes
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Written By: John Le Carré (novel), Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan (screenplay)
Focus Features/Studio Canal, 2011
R; 127 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


I recently read and reviewed the book this movie was based on, and I have to say it did help that I was already familiar with the source material because the movie has the potential to be confusing to those who don't already know the story. And yet the writers made enough alterations from the novel that, having just read it, I was very aware of what was different and missing, too. It was a little like one of those picture games where you have two images and are told to find all the changes.

As a film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a Cold War-era tale of British espionage in which Oldman plays "retired" (read: booted) MI6 agent George Smiley, who is pulled back into the world of "The Circus" in order to help smoke out a mole working for the Russians. That sounds like a simple enough story, but these are spies, remember, so everything becomes very convoluted very quickly. And while the film is good—better than good, actually—it suffers a little in comparison to the book, not because of the changes that have been made (the changes work very well), but because the characters don't get enough of an introduction for the viewers to necessarily follow them easily or get any real sense of them at all. If I hadn't only just read the novel, I would almost certainly have been asking myself, Which one is that guy again? and Wait, what was his story? Maybe even, Why should I care about him, exactly?

TTSS requires undivided attention. There are a lot of people and a lot of cuts between past and present. Still, the story is good enough to hold an audience's interest, which makes it somewhat better than the book in that respect, since parts of the novel were prone to drag. As Smiley, Oldman is able to pull all focus to him; his smallest motions convey as much as any length of dialogue might. Flashbacks to what must have been the worst Christmas party in history add a strange weight, a sorrow, to the whole of the film.

Along with Oldman, Mark Strong, whom I usually think of as a villain, has a small, non-evil role, and the quiet strength of his performance is lovely. Tom Hardy, too, shines a bit as a rogue agent whose emotions get the better of him, even as he tries to do the right thing.

It's a nice-looking film, too, the bad 70s haircuts notwithstanding. A sort of sodium filter gives everything the tint of an old photograph, which lends itself to the story quite well.

Still and all, it isn't edge-of-your-seat spy thriller entertainment. Nothing is exploding. There are one or two tense scenes in which someone is in jeopardy—and maybe I would have felt it more if I hadn't already known the outcomes—but the overall feel is one of quiet reflection and semi-nostalgia. Which sounds boring, but somehow TTSS (and Oldman) pulls it off.

And at the end of the day, as the credits roll, one could easily imagine another George Smiley movie to follow. Even hope for one. Just give me enough warning so I can read the novel first, please.

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