Judge Clark Douglas prefers to communicate via baleful facial expressions.
Trust no one. Suspect everyone.
"It's the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?"
Facts of the Case
British intelligence officer George Smiley (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight) has just learned a terrible secret: there is a spy within the highest ranks of British intelligence. Such information must be handled with utmost delicacy, particularly during the fragile Cold War era in which Smiley is operating. The list of suspects has been narrowed down to four key figures, all of whom have been given specific code names: Percy Alleline, aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones, Captain America: The First Avenger), Bill Haydon, aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth, The King's Speech), Roy Bland, aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds, Munich) and Toby Esterhause, aka "Poorman" (David Dencik, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Will Smiley ferret out the suspect, or will the off-the-books investigation blow up in his face?
When one hears the phrase, "spy movie," odds are a very particular set of images come to mind. You imagine the adventures of a suave, debonair, tuxedo-wearing charmer jet-setting around the world in pursuit of similarly elegant criminals. Along the way, there are pauses for romantic interludes with French fashion models, mixed drinks, car chases and shoot-outs. To be sure, this is terrific movie material—there's a reason the James Bond franchise is still kicking after fifty years—but it's a hilarious misrepresentation of what a spy's life is really like. As such, it might seem as if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is intended as a rebuke of the Bond movies, but that's not really the case. It only feels that way because the Bond movies represent a 180-degree turn from reality.
In Cold War world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Bond's attention-grabbing antics would invite a swift death. The best spies are men like Smiley: ordinary, drab-looking people who keep their mouths shut, their eyes peeled and their minds open. It is a quiet, tedious, lonely life; a good deal of time is spent inside a dimly-lit office building sorting through endless paperwork. One of the film's many virtues is the manner in which it captures the soul-crushing nature of the profession, consistently nailing the sad subtext beneath John le Carre's typically labyrinthine plotting.
Much has been made of Gary Oldman's fine performance, which offers an atypically reserved turn from the actor (he's certainly played quiet roles before, but never quite this quiet). There's a strangely reptilian ambiguity about Smiley; he asks indirect questions and gives very little indication of what he actually thinks of the answers. Like Alec Guinness in the television adaptation of the same novel, Oldman relies on subtle physical gestures throughout his performance, infusing every uncomfortable shift, raised eyebrow and vocal inflection with enormous meaning. There's so much going on inside of Smiley's mind, but it only rises to the surface in the subtlest of ways. When the screenplay finally permits him the opportunity to raise his voice a little, the dramatic effect is enormous.
The film as a whole operates on a similar level, generating enormously powerful moments in such quiet ways. Consider the flashback in which Smiley discovers that his wife is cheating on him. Here is a man who has witnessed many horrors and taken them in stride, but this is something he never expected. The stability of his tightly-organized world has been dealt a critical blow. Smiley backs up against a wall and finds himself barely able to breathe. Part of the reason that moment is so flooring is that it's presented so quickly and inconspicuously: the movie rarely uses its snaky Alberto Iglesias score or other techniques to inform the audience that they're witnessing a particularly crucial moment. Like good spies, we must observe carefully and filter out the important things for ourselves.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is blessed with a remarkable cast; the credits read like a "who's who?" of modern British cinema. The splendidly-named Benedict Cumberbatch does tremendous work as Smiley's right-hand man Peter Guillam, and excels during a tense heist sequence of sorts. Tom Hardy gives the film a bruised soul as long-MIA intelligence man Ricky Tarr, whose account of his adventures are the closest the film comes to 007 territory (though his international exploits are far more brutal and frustratingly unresolved than those of Mr. Bond). Intriguingly, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik aren't really given much to do—they're largely cast for their memorable faces so that we'll recall who is who. They all fill their roles splendidly, and the actor eventually revealed as the mole does particularly superb work in his closing scene. John Hurt is tremendously effective in what can best be described as, "the John Hurt role," while Mark Strong receives one of the best roles he's gotten since rising to notoriety. Special attention should also be paid to Cathy Burke, who delivers one of the film's strongest and warmest scenes as former MI6 employee Connie Sachs.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Blu-ray) generally looks good in hi-def, though it's not quite the dazzling HD experience I was hoping for. This is a great-looking film, as Tomas Alfredson's intentionally lifeless color palette and the film's striking cinematography make it a film which does a great deal of crucial storytelling via technical design. However, the grain level is distractingly inconsistent at times, with a handful of darker scenes suffering from excessive noise. Otherwise, detail is exceptional, flesh tones are natural and blacks are deep. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is basically flawless, offering an immersive and rich experience which fully envelops the viewer in the film's icy world. There isn't much in the way of big explosions or pulse-pounding soundtrack selections, but the subtle design that is featured is mixed superbly. Supplements include a dry but informative commentary with Alfredson and Gary Oldman, an hour's worth of individual interviews with Alfredson, Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John le Carre and co-screenwriter Peter Straughan, a generic "First Look" featurette (13 minutes), some deleted scenes, BD-Live, a DVD copy and a digital copy. Generally low-key stuff, but the interviews and the commentary are worth digging into.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Many have complained about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's frustrating narrative complexity. Viewers have suggested that the plot is difficult to follow and that the movie can't really be understood on a first viewing. While the movie certainly isn't easily digested popcorn fare, I do think it rewards attentive viewing and doesn't take any unintentional detours into confusing territory. Part of the thrill of many le Carre novels is finally working through the fog of the obscure spy lingo he presents, putting plot details together and catching up with the characters. The movie takes the same approach, as things tend to start clicking for us in retrospect rather than fifteen minutes ahead of time. My own perception may well be warped, as I had been exposed to the novel and TV miniseries (both excellent and worth your attention) before digging into the film. However, for what it's worth, my wife was not familiar with either and managed to keep up with the movie on her first viewing. Just stay alert and be sure to hit "pause" before taking any bathroom breaks and you'll be fine.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the finest big-screen adaptation of le Carre's work to date, featuring consistently compelling direction from Alfredson and expert performances from its impressive cast.
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