Regretfully, I did not get to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy before I made my top 10 of 2011 list. Director Tomas Alfredson’s second film, it is also his second adaptation of a novel, this being the second filmed adaptation of the source material itself, the novel by John le Carré. Due to the popularity of the source material, it’s a tough balancing act to walk into. The complex novel was first filmed as a 5 hour mini-series, here, screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor had the daunting task of whittling everything down to a 2 hour run time without losing any major details that make the story work.
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired officer of “The Circus”, an MI6-like organization responsible for gathering intelligence for England during the cold war. When the current members of “The Circus” come under scrutiny for a possible Soviet mole within the organization, they turn to Smiley to investigate the group, and he slowly uncovers a working plot, it’s his job to see where it all falls and why.
His ace in the hole is a British agent named Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) who maintained an asset that was able to tell him there is a mole on the top floor of The Circus. Smiley eventually makes his way to Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), who was outed by the agency, “killed” on paper as it were, and told to go live a new life elsewhere, where he becomes a country school teacher, after doing what he believed to be his job, following orders from Control (John Hurt). What Smiley uncovers is the ring Control refers to as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and of course, they’re looking for the spy of the title.
While Alfredson does a great job of keeping the pace and never wasting any time in the film, in more than one instance I believe it is to the film’s detriment. Sometimes the less you know the better, in other films, like this one, it can be to great detriment if you can’t quickly place a name to a face. On the same token, a lot of the best story moments are when something goes unsaid, even though everyone knows it.
The cinematography and camera movement propel the story forward in big, flashy fashion. Not to the detriment of the film, mind you, but fluid enough to make the period costumes and settings visually interesting in every scene, which helps to quell the attention drawn by the many wigs in the film. Alfredson does well to balance a lot of complex stories and themes into such short sequences, and he definitely knows how to use actors. Tom Hardy may be in the film for all of 15 minutes, but his role is pivotal and this is the most stately I’ve ever seen Gary Oldman.
The deep swath of supporting characters are all played expertly by some of the best actors Britian has to offer, with Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, and Colin Firth also chewing scenes throughout, the acting work is the stand out of the film, in a film full of exceptional craft all around. Gary Oldman is particularly good, and even though that is generally expected of him, it’s a marvel to watch him here and compare to the The Dark Knight Rises trailer, it’s amazing he can play characters in similar situations so differently when called for.
My only gripe was that as well liked as the source material is, the Cold War has been done to death. As interesting and well made as the film is, it doesn’t have the modern relevance of other political thrillers. I suppose at this point, political thrillers in general aren’t exactly what audiences want, we get enough of that on our news on a daily basis. Alfredson has made a smart, balanced, interesting, and well acted film. It might get some attention from the Academy when they announce their nominations at the end of the month, but like a lot of films this year, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy ultimately feels like something is missing.
Tomas Alfredson further proves his ability as an exciting director to watch for, and someone that can really get down to the core of a story and understand it fully, resulting in great adaptations. Tom Hardy provides further evidence as to why he’s one of the most sought-after actors right now, before The Dark Knight Rises is even released. This is one of those films where each part has something interesting to offer, but at the end, the pieces just don’t add up like they should, resulting in frustration. There’s no reason this wasn’t a good movie, but at the same time, it wasn’t a great movie, but the whole time it felt like it had the potential to be great.