When British author John le Carre released his fifth novel featuring Secret Intelligence Agent George Smiley in 1974, he can be forgiven perhaps for not realizing what he had on his hands at the time. The first novel in what became known as his Cold War-set "Karla Trilogy" went on to become a bestseller of international proportions, had radio and television adaptations made, and remains one of the best known British novels to date, completely revolutionizing the spy drama in the process. So when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally was given the cinematic treatment by director Tomas Alfredson (who made the original Swedish Let the Right One In), there were those fans of the book whose response was “it’s about time!” It helped that the cast brought in was chock full of talent, from standouts like Gary Oldman and Colin Firth to perhaps lesser known Tom Hardy and Toby Jones. Would any of these stellar abilities get any lasting recognition for such a renowned title? And how does this well-anticipated film fare over the course of a two hour movie when both previous adaptations had to be slotted into seven-part miniseries? My trek to the theater to add this to my yearly film allowance would hopefully answer that.
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In the wake of a blown operation in which British spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot and captured by Russian intelligence operatives, a shakedown is performed at the top of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, forcing out "Control" (John Hurt), the SIS’s director, and his right hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Control is convinced however that one of the four men left in charge of the SIS in his departure is in fact a mole, funneling secrets to Russian Intelligence. When Control, already ill, passes away, it is left to Smiley to ferret out what few clues can be found and to see which of the four operatives, code-named Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds) and Poorman (David Dencik), is the culprit, and whether the mole has anything to do with the top secret source of intelligence from Russia, known only as “Witchcraft”.
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As I mentioned before, the exhaustive cast is one of the major draws if Tinker Tailor appeals to you. Gary Oldman reminds us of what a star he used to be in the nineties, as recent years have seen him starring in less-than-reputable titles or tagging on side roles in big series' like The Dark Knight or Harry Potter. Given center stage, however, he cuts a swath through the material in front of him, with every deliberate motion and dour grimace given for a very good reason, with no wasted energy to muddy up his delivery beyond exactly what is needed. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, most notably Colin Firth as a rival Intelligence head and one of those suspected to be a mole. Firth plays up the clichéd British arrogance for the role, but because he’s Colin fricking Firth his performance doesn’t come off as trite or silly. Other standouts include Toby Jones as the smug new head of the SIS, Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley’s confidante and overly cautious agent, and Mark Strong in a relatively small role as Jim Prideaux, the agent (and Firth’s character’s best friend) whose capture sets off the whole mess. Kathy Burke impresses in one scene as a foul-mouthed source of information (I guess her character had a larger role in the book), vacillating between helpful and flirty with Smiley. Unfortunately, crushing the story of the book down to a two-hour film means a whole got left out, including a lot of back-story for suspects played by Ciaran Hinds and David Denick. It’s a shame as both are well-regarded actors who would have benefited from a little more screen time. Also impressive is rising Hollywood star Tom Hardy as young agent Ricki Tarr, whose appearance in London allows Smiley clues to the mole in his midst. Hardy, nearly unrecognizable with a shaggy head of hair, shows that no matter the role, no matter how out of place it might seem for him, he can do it. It’ll be a shame to see his career go mainstream (such as in the upcoming This Means War), but if there’s any justice in the world, his name atop billboards will inspire people to see his films sooner rather than later.
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The aforementioned plot compressions create other problems besides just glossed-over characters. On one hand, the story feels told as if no crucial details are left out, and the tension the film bears throughout feels completely natural to a spy thriller like this. On the other hand, the tension is born from square one, with little downtime for the viewers to stop and catch their breath amid all the potential treason. While no major details feel left out, the same cannot be said for minor, clarifying ones, and some narrative miscues will throw the viewer off for whole scenes at a time, especially some featuring Mark Strong early on. Overall, the whole thing feels as though you need to have read the book to fully appreciate the experience of seeing this film. This is unfortunately the byproduct of plot shrink, and thankfully it’s no more than a minor nuisance on the film as a whole. Sure, some characters and plot points would have made far more sense with a bit more prodding, but for the most part such details would have been nice additions, not necessary exposition.
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For a film based on a beloved novel, there were certainly plenty of places where a lesser filmmaker would have screwed up. Thankfully, Alfredson did his source material due diligence and brought together the perfect cast, melding them into a story that would have devolved into drawn-out mumbo-jumbo without a strong hand to guide them. This is one of the few times I will argue that a film should have been LONGER, but thankfully this is no reason not to see what amounts overall to a very good film. While perhaps not reaching “Must See” status, it’s just a rung below, and even if you don’t see this Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the theaters, I hope you’ll at least consider it a serious rental in a few month’s time. More importantly, I hope the Academy will show the film and especially lead Gary Oldman more love than the Golden Globes have. Oldman deserves a Best Actor nomination for his efforts, as much for how he has been ignored in today’s Hollywood as he has been vindicated in this international thrill ride.