‘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!

“The King’s Speech”—A Personal Idiom for All of Us

This is the third of my movie reviews so far.  The first movie review, “127 Hours”, and the  second, “Black Swan”, are two portraits of protagonists who have a daunting obstacle to overcome.  In “127 Hours” the main character has to wound himself in the most barbarous of ways to survive.  In “Black Swan”, the ballerina has to face her demons in order to truly be an artist.  And in “The King’s Speech”, King George VI has to overcome a debilitating stutter of humiliating proportions with a determination, dignity, and courage that can only be called heroic. After the Golden Globes awards I was delighted to read that the producers of “127 Hours” and “The King’s Speech” (a Golden Globe winner for best actor Colin Firth) were surprised critics were comparing their movies not only to each other but also to “Black Swan”.  To me the theme is evident: these characters all have unhealed wounds.  In two of the three their wounds are triumphantly healed and they move forward with their lives.

In “The King’s Speech,  “Bertie” (Colin Firth) who has suffered from severe stuttering since childhood, is suddenly crowned King George VI of England.  Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), his gentle and compassionate wife, encourages Bertie to see an eccentric Australian expat, the self-taught speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). After a reluctant beginning in which the class difference between the king and the therapist seems insurmountable, the two eventually form an endearing and unbreakable friendship. With the imaginative and therapeutic support of Logue, the King courageously overcomes his stutter and delivers the pivotal radio-address in 1939 announcing that Great Britain must wage war against Germany.  Colin Firth, in a truly inspired portrayal of a tortured man, renders this scene heartbreaking.  Finding his voice allows his sense of self to rise from the abyss of silence.

This superb movie is both humorous and emotionally charged.  The viewer slowly comes to the realization that, while we all have to find our voice, for some of us even the vocalization of sound is an act of courage. David Seidler, the movie’s 73-year-old screenwriter, was a childhood stutterer. Colin Firth has said that his inspiration came not only from Seidler but also from his own speech disorder that he had to overcome in order to develop his identity as a young actor.  And while the roots of stuttering are still somewhat mysterious — there’s no single accepted theory of its origins.  Adult stutterers often undergo years of sometimes discouraging therapies before they can feel comfortable with the sound of their own voice. The confluence of voice and self-identity can only be called iconic for those in the performing arts.   This movie embodies the story of a wound that was healed bravely, elegantly, and gracefully.