Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a tense, dramatic and exciting experience cloaked in Cold War paranoia that immerses you in its labyrinthine mystery.

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Based on John le Carre’s novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy simmers with slow-burning tension in seventies London as British Intelligence, led by veteran agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman), scurries around with patient finesse to find the alleged mole planted within its ranks. Directed by Let The Right One In filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a celebration of cinema at its most refined while having the unhurried pace of classic Hollywood film noir. Although devoid of the genre’s femme fatale (unless Kathy Burke’s Connie Sachs fits the bill) the film is shot in washed-out monotones, painting each and every scene with a prosaic perfection as if the swinging sixties never happened. If nothing else, Alfredson’s film could be framed on the wall as a piece of fine art. Yet, thankfully, there’s plenty of meat on its pristine bones.

In 1973, the Cold War casting an uneasy shadow across the politics that split East from West, Control, the head of British Intelligence (known as the Circus) sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a mission to Hungary to meet a general who wishes to sell information. The operation is a failure. Prideaux is shot by Soviet intelligence and either killed or captured. In the ensuing confusion, Control and his right-hand man George Smiley are forced into retirement. Due to ill health Control dies and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) takes over duties as the new Chief of the Circus. However, following an allegation from agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) concerning a long-term mole established at the very heights of the secret service, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), a civil servant in charge of intelligence, hires George Smiley to investigate.

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Alfredson’s film could be framed on the wall as a piece of fine art.

Audiences might remember the television series starring Alec Guinness that told le Carre’s story across seven episodes. Arguably, such a complex plot would benefit from the more episodic and structured nature of a television series. But Alfredson’s film manages to remain suitably complicated while immersing viewers in a narrative that favours themes, ambience and performance. It is therefore gripping and hugely entertaining thanks to its labyrinthine mystery, its overpowering sense of Cold War paranoia, Alfredson’s composed and unobtrusive photography, and the performances of some of Britain’s finest actors.

Leading the cast is Gary Oldman, a man of seemingly unending talent who has the ability to play a multitude of roles. It is great seeing Oldman take the lead, he usually shies away from mainstream productions and if he does sign up for a blockbuster he’s often playing second fiddle to a dashing leading man. It isn’t that he has it all his own way in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy given the ensemble cast that includes the wonderful John Hurt and the charismatic Colin Firth, but he does have the crucial role of George Smiley. And he’s superb – reserved and considered, he has a physical power that emanates from eyes that are framed by rotund spectacles.

And it is in the framing that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy excels. Every shot composed by Alfredson with director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema is meticulously detailed with a flawless sense of period setting. From costume and set design to exterior shots and the almost invisible pieces of miscellaneous decoration dotted around homes and office buildings, everything has a place as if Alfredson has painstakingly constructed each single frame with the devoted eye of an oil painter piecing together every last millimetre of visual space.

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Gary Oldman is superb – reserved and considered, he has a physical power that emanates from eyes that are framed by rotund spectacles.

And while some have criticised the ending for arriving with a whimper instead of a bang, it is perfectly in keeping with the restrained and cautious pace of both the plot and Smiley’s investigation. Smiley pieces together the facts with effortless finesse, this isn’t James Bond flying through the upper windows of a foreign embassy in a shoulder-mounted jet pack. If you ever saw the ultra calm Smiley breaking a sweat it is probably because you’ve mistaken droplets of water for perspiration before he’s had a chance to pat himself dry following a relaxing and well-deserved bath. The mystery’s conclusion is a fitting way to end Smiley’s investigation and yet Alfredson still has a few surprises up his sleeve.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is a bold and brilliant British film that is constructed with the delicacy of a filmmaker who masterfully conceives of every shot and every scene with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Technically the film is flawless – from the performances to the cinematography to the set design to the musical score – nothing feels out of place. Tense, dramatic and exciting, Alfredson’s film’s immersive sense of paranoia and distrust is enough to bundle you cosily up in its labyrinthine plot as the mystery slowly unfolds.

Review by Daniel Stephens

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Directed by: Tomas Alfredson
Written by: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch
Released: 2011 / Genre: Drama/Thriller/Period / Country: UK / IMDB
Buy on DVD: DVD | Blu-ray
More reviews: Latest | Archive
About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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    Eric Reply

    Great review, Dan. I am really looking forward to seeing this one. It sure has an amazing cast, and it’s been a while since I have seen a great espionage thriller.

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    Rodney Reply

    I have this down to watch next week – great review, and I can’t wait to see it. I’m tipping Oldman as an outside chance for Best Actor at the Oscars.

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    Thomas Reply

    I tried hard to get into it, but just could not manage, I observed it and appreciated it, but could not get immersed. All the praise you give to the film I agree with. It seems that it was just not cut out for me. Or I should have had more Scotch before starting it. Or less? My notes of being lost in this “unhurried” (very accurate expression if there ever was one, should go on the poster!) spy drama:

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    Scott Reply

    Interesting review Dan. Our review is going live today / tomorrow but it isn’t as promising as yours. Mike who reviewed it was a little less impressed than you.

    Thanks for the great write up though as ever!

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    Daniel Reply

    The movie sucked. Your review is a joke.

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    Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Dan and company:

    Great review!

    Having been spoiled by the original mini-series when it aired on PBS ages ago. This newer take holds up very well and deserves its accolades from top yo bottom.

    With solid A-List and up and coming talent. That fills the shoes of Smiley, Control, Guillam, Rikki Tarr, et al nearly as well as the Sir Alec Guinness, Alexander Knox, Ian Richardson, Hywel Bennet, Ian Bannen and Beryl Reid did long ago.

    A great companion piece.

    Though I still prefer the original. For the investigations, interplay and personal intrigues that were whittled down for Misters Alfredson, Oldman and company.

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    Bonjour Tristesse Reply

    I’m going to see this one tomorrow. Hopefully I have the same experience as you did.

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    Dan Reply

    @Daniel: Thank you for dropping by and for briefly reviewing my review with thought and distinction. I’ve had a look at your own review of the film and just want to make a couple of points:

    Firstly a hint – you say:

    John le Carre authored the book on which the movie is based, and I have to say, le Carre and another author named James Ellroy have both contributed to boring spy/detective movies, the worst offenders in history. The adaptations of their books – the ones I’ve seen – are a real boring stinkers.

    Watch out for films based on their novels in future…perhaps advice that should have been heeded before subjecting yourself to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

    This movie was traditionally disinteresting, a backward-and-forward plot without any gravity, without much plot as it happens.

    “Traditionally disinteresting” – so at least it lived up to your expectations! The structure of the narrative was, for me, a brave and intelligent way of conveying the Cold War undercurrent that shed a veil of paranoia over the time and the people involved in the secret service.

    All the characters don’t command your attention because they don’t do anything.

    Wow – Gary Oldman – Oscar nominated for THAT great performance. He got my attention! Each to their own though.

    Indeed, this is a spy film with all the boring bits included. There’s no action…

    So it isn’t The Expendables or Transformers 3!…thank goodness.

    All I wanted was to be entertained, but there are no dramatics even – in fact, the protagonist George Smiley just sits around the whole movie, that’s how unexciting this shocker is.

    Please never watch one of my favourite films of all time, and simply one of the greatest ever, 12 Angry Men. To sum up the plot – all they do is sit around the entire film with a brief break for a conversation in a toilet.

    This was not fun at all, with no humour, period.

    “no humour” – it isn’t American Pie you know. If you want humour perhaps try the utter brainless The Change-Up as the sight gags and sex jokes might be more appealing.

    I’d hate to be responsible for this film. I don’t despise many genres, except American comedies...

    Ah, well, leave The Change-Up well alone! It is far too lowbrow obviously.

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    Dan Reply

    @Eric: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

    @Rodney: I hope you enjoy it Rodney. It has a great atmosphere throughout – not something I’ve experienced many times before. Alfredson’s a talented filmmaker.

    @Thomas: Excellent review Thomas – well written and argued as usual. I think Alfredson has made the conscious decision to favour an atmosphere of tension rather than plot-based tension. If that makes any sense. So I agree it is easy to get distracted and I won’t say that I didn’t also fall into this trap when I was looking for that real sense of danger (which perhaps isn’t present). But my interpretation of the Cold War was this idea of a perceived threat instead of a real one and I think Alfredson captures this thematically in Tinker. I wonder if a second viewing would help. Of course, it is hard to watch a film you haven’t enjoyed for a second time.

    @Scott: Thanks Scott. Excellent review by Mike on FRC!

    @Jack Deth: Thanks for dropping by Jack! I agree actually about the television series. I think a plot as labyrinthine as this one benefits from a structured and episodic nature of a television series. But Alfredson did a great job adapting it into a comparatively short feature film.

    @Bonjour: Hope you like it Bonjour. It is definitely unique.

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    Fogs Reply

    Nice review, man. I agree across the board. I thought it was a great flick too.

    “Alfredson’s film’s immersive sense of paranoia and distrust is enough to bundle you cosily up in its labyrinthine plot as the mystery slowly unfolds”

    That’s an extremely well put sentence right there 😀

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    Novroz Reply

    Great review Dan! and 5 stars too…I can’t wait to see it.

    I also enjoy reading your reply to Daniel 😉

    This is my favorite answer:

    Indeed, this is a spy film with all the boring bits included. There’s no action…

    So it isn’t The Expendables or Transformers 3!…thank goodness.

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    Stevee Reply

    I want to see this movie so much! But no-one wants to take me over to the cinemas, so I’ll probably be waiting until the DVD release to see it. And I must say, I loved your response to Daniel!

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    Dan Reply

    @Fogs: cheers. Very kind of you to say.

    @Novroz: glad you enjoyed reading!

    @Stevee: I hope you get a chance to see it soon!

  14. Avatar
    Fitz Reply

    Who could argue with such a thought-out and reasoned argument like, “this movie sucked”?

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    Matt Stewart Reply

    Excellent review. I have still yet to find the time to see this film, but the cast alone is a good enough reason to give it a look for me!

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    Jaina Reply

    Love reading reviews from films fans who enjoyed this film. It’s an excellent film which is worthy of the praise it’s getting. Definitely agree with you when you say that every frame of the film could be put up on a wall as a piece of art. It’s a stunning looking film.

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    Avalon Reply

    Really interesting read, although I can’t say I agree with it all! I haven’t seen the series, but it felt like there was just too much material to pare down into a feature film, not enough time for character development. By the end I wasn’t really fussed who the mole was, which was a bit disappointing. Your review does make me want to take a second look at it though, I know I must be missing something. Might just have been blinded by jealousy at how much better Gary Oldman looks in glasses than I do.

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