Film reviews

Jan 23, 2012

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy movie review: scrambled messages

Luke Buckmaster — Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist

Luke Buckmaster

Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman plays a disgraced British spy covertly rehired to weed out a secret service mole in early 70’s London, a time when the western world was ablaze with Cold War hysteria and a Swedish pop group known by a four letter palindrome began making the kind of noise that would be blasted, decades later, into the ears of Guantanamo Bay inmates in a different but similarly nebulous war.

Oldman skilfully contains his performance in his brow and behind his cheeks. He sucks it in, keeps the ironically named George Smiley quiet and restrained but smart and determined — the visage of a man who knows more than you do but is still putting the pieces together, mentally mapping the final bumps and twists in the lead-up to a smug last minute reveal of the kind Marple, Poirot, Foyle, Lansbury riding a bicycle would approbate with a slow congratulatory nod.

His glum and unprepossessing presence is mirrored in the cold, muted look and clinical goings-on of director Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) adaptation of author John le Carré’s twisty whodunit. Alfredson and his writers clearly struggled to package the architecture of le Carré’s plot into two coherent hours, with thinly developed supporting characters and a smattering of side-plots, back-stories and flashbacks stir fried into a scramble, the central mystery draped on top to cloak the mess. When the story was previously attempted on the screen, in the late 70’s, it uncoiled in a seven part mini-series starring Alec Guinness.

Alfredson maintains an admirable lightness of touch, and the performances are fine, but narrative cohesion was the first victim of the cross-over and structurally the plot flies helter-skelter. Naturally it all comes together in the end, when Smiley is afforded his much earned gotcha moment and a chalk outline character is disappointingly shoehorned into the reveal then whisked to the naughty corner. Finding out the identity of the mole was, it ought to be noted, never very interesting to begin with, which makes Oldman’s fun-less performance all the more appropriate.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy’s Australian theatrical release date: January 19, 2012. 

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13 thoughts on “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy movie review: scrambled messages

  1. Aphra

    Hi Paddy and Venise, I’m honoured to be in your illustrious ranks! I,too, love this book (and Smiley’s People) and indeed the original tv series, both of which I have on DVD and replay every 18 months or so. It’s interesting to read comments on this film but I haven’t yet made up my mind whether or not to see it.

    Two small points: Fawn is the Smiley appointed ‘minder’ of Ricki Starr, the larrikin Australian who starts the whole ball rolling, and second, Cornwall wouldn’t have mistaken his ranks as Michael suggests. Fans of this excellent writer all know that he was an MI5 officer before being transferred to MI6 and only resigned when Kim Philby blew his cover.

  2. diane.cummins

    I wanted to liked this movie but I wish I had done what the woman sitting next to me did after half an hour – left this yawn of a film. It is just so uninvolving as to make the extra 60+ minutes I endured a complete waste of time.

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  5. cannedheat

    Have to agree with Michael but not as a niggle. It wasn’t the seventies and seemed a bit of a mishmash of 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The drunken Xmas party with a DJ and waiters right in the MI6 office? The 1950’s song during the phone call with everyone tapping their foot?

    The narrative and mystery were missing. Really I didn’t care about the characters or understand their linkages and they looked so busy ‘acting’ rather than ‘being’ it was distracting. Oldman might have found a pair of Alec Guiness’s glasses in a second hand shop but he was not able to inhabit the character in his own right.

    The director failed to provide context. Others can establish time place and relationships in a few frames. It was a light touch, way too light .

  6. Woody

    I’d have to agree with the above review, and that of Roger Ebert’s, that this movie incarnation is a bit of a mess as a two hour film, despite solid performances. TV’s “Sherlock”, Benedict Cumberbatch demonstrates why he’s already well on his way to a big screen career. What does amaze me is that not many seem to have picked up on Oldman’s bang on vocal impression of Alec Guinness.

    With Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep especially changing the art of acting into that of impersonations, or “impressions” I reckon by today’s standards famed impressionist Rich Little would be thought of as the greatest actor who ever lived!

  7. Scheckler Ted

    I thought TTSS was a fantastic movie. It was a throwback, not only to the 70s era, but the 70s style of filmmaking. Where more chances were taken and the film didn’t bombard you with superfluous information like all films today. It was subtle and nuanced and required participation as an audience member. Not having seen or read the books, I probably paid extra attention than those who had – as I felt it was needed – and I was rewarded with a great film. Oldman’s stoic, underplay was a mastery example in acting. Like everything else he has done. I coudn’t disagree with this review more.

  8. michael

    A niggling point, but the clothes and hairstyle were just not 1970s. And I don’t mean kitsch “Seventies”. Check out an episode of Reggie Perrin or the Good Life to see what it was really like. Three piece suits, for a start. And where were the working class footsoldiers? The Ipcress File nailed how it was – the secret service was divided on officer/other ranks (ie coppers) lines just as much as the armed services.

  9. Venise Alstergren

    PADDY: I loves ya. I re-read my favourite books all the time. I thought it might betray an unhinged mind??!!?

  10. Venise Alstergren

    I meant to say that a tail was known as a Pavement Artist…sorry

  11. Venise Alstergren

    I admit to not having seen the mini-series but I have read the book. So it was with my mind more or less in neutral that I went to see it. And loved it. Gary Oldman was superb as the perennially cuckolded Smiley-perhaps this was why Oldman’s performance was ‘fun-less’?

    Much to be admired were the visual acknowledgements of the book. As in Mother Russia’s pet dog which she carry’s everywhere she goes. In stead of a convoluted explanation the dog appears as an unexplained item for the non-book viewers, and as a nice tick for the readers.

    For those who didn’t read the book Mother Russia is Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhazy was Fawn, or was that Peter Gwillam? A pavement artist was a tail. etc etc. Mercifully the Cousins were scarcely mentioned. Olé.

  12. NeoTheFatCat

    I confess to not having seen the original TV series, and bypassing the book in the stores (which I will correct soon). So, for me this film doesn’t come with any baggage associated with previous efforts or the original story.

    I thought this was a great movie. Sure, the lack of character development and the backwards, forwards and sideway movements can be confusing, but this is the point. Unlike Hollywood movies, where every aspect of the story line is labourously laid out for you on a silver platter, and every movement in plot is telegraphed so far out that you basically get the movie if you’ve seen the trailer, this movie forces you to think, to follow along and to change just when you thought you had figured it out.

    Another thing I appreciated was that is is a quiet movie. No loud sound effects, no overt-the-top music, not much yelling.

    I always know that I’ve been to a good movie when a certain friend says it was confusing.

    I would definitely put this in the “see it” category.

  13. paddy

    Having watched (and loved) both the BBC’s mini-series based on Le Carre’s Smiley, I was determined to hate this attempt to revisit TTSS.
    Much to my surprise, I found it thoroughly satisfying.
    Sure it’s not Alec Guinness in the definitive 7 parter. But for me, it stands on its own as a nicely measured, impressionistic mood piece.
    Perhaps it would be different if I wasn’t so familiar with the plot. Having seen the earlier version and read the book multiple times.
    4/5 from me.

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