‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”–Not Enough Tinkering for My Taste

This cinematic remake of the landmark mini-TV series from 1980, starring Alec Guiness, is updated with Gary Oldman in the starring role that Guiness made so famous. Based upon the John le Carré espionage thriller,  “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” dramatizes British secret intelligence–nicknamed “The Circus” –during the early 1970s Cold War.

Control (John Hurt), the chief intelligence operative, is forced into retirement because a covert operation failed to identify a double agent or “mole”. Forced into retirement along with Control, Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been ordered back into service to trap the mole, after Control dies. Alongside the young intelligence officer Peter Guillam (the ever-watchable Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley tracks four primary suspects: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).  Information Smiley obtains eventually leads him to Ricki Tarr  (TomHardy), the dirty “cleaner” for British intelligence’s most repugnant operations.

The pacing during the first half of the film–with multiple flashbacks to Budapest, Paris, and Istanbul–forces the viewer to assimilate and track approximately a dozen key characters—most of whom go by at least two names—in very slow tempo, making connecting the dots and characters more difficult than necessary.  Perhaps the director (Tomas Alfredson) thought this would build suspense, but for me the characters became confused and undeveloped.  Motivations were insufficiently revealed.  Private lives were obscured as well as loyalties and betrayals.

While I did not expect the brisk spy action or glitzy glamour of the Bourne series or even BBC’s Masterpiece Mystery, the first half of this remake is so languid I started to get drowsy. Photographed well for where and when it took place, the footage does give a sense of the Cold War in grey, drizzly tones and mood.

The film must be judged on its own merits, with the viewer given enough subtle cues to conduct an investigation along with Smiley.  Characterization wise, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” falls short.  The storyline necessary to keep the audience’s interest faltered, especially for those who are seeing this movie as a stand-alone narrative without reference to any previous work.  However, the much-better second half of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” comprises a more complex, intricately woven plot of tension, cold-war paranoia, and deception.

With a veritable dream team of the finest names in modern British cinema, – Oldman, Firth, Hinds, Cumberbatch, Hardy, Strong and Hurt–the concomitant achievement in cinematic storytelling I expected unfortunately did not happen. All of these extraordinary actors’ supporting roles at times eclipse Gary Oldman’s subdued performance but ultimately are wasted talent in this version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Without having read the book or seen the 1979 version, it will, most likely, be very difficult to fill gaps in the narrative. Important plot points and clues just aren’t there–a more tailored approach to le Carré’s work was needed, even with le Carré providing supervision of the screenplay!

4 comments on “‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”–Not Enough Tinkering for My Taste

  1. Having had a cursory knowledge of the story, I was able to grasp the many plot strands going on. I found Gary Oldman’s character thoughtful and understated, much like the film. It was a very British tale with an austere Scandinavian aesthetic. Not a warm movie, but rewarding; not a nail-biter, but still a thrilling spy flick with a bit of surprise violence and a good soundtrack. Cricket anyone?

  2. This is one of the few movies that you have reviewed that I have actually seen, and enjoyed! As a le Carre reader, the pacing does follow the voice of the author, with all of the quirky inferences and quick nuances of the British use of language. And I did enjoy the ‘Scandinavian aesthetic.’ As a tangential remark, I have read nearly all of le Carre’s books and have been so gratified to follow this thread of his personal development as a humanist, if there could ever be a single word to describe one person’s road map. Over the author’s career, he continues to provide ‘spy mystery’, with each new novel paring away more and more of the superfluous and in the end exposing the stark truth of the human heart. Perhaps le Carre subscribes to the title of your blog more than the movie does!

  3. Your review is very generous to a poor confusing movie….Gary Oldman did not resemble the George Smiley of the book, and neither did any of the other characters…the movie failed to follow the book and lacked all of its depth…Whereas the novel is a classic, the movie is a P.U.

  4. I’ll wait till it’s on Netflix but I’ll probably have to see this movie. Why?? Because Gary Olman is in it! Have you ever seen that BMW short film where he plays the devil? Dracula will always be one of my favorites.

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