Based off a 1974 novel by the same name, “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” is an espionage film that focuses on the British Intelligence agency known as “The Circus” during the height of the Cold War when the head of the agency, named Control (John Hurt), is forced into early retirement when a Hungarian mission goes awry and an agent in the field is exposed. He takes his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) with him.
Control’s suspicions are proven correct when a scalphunter — an agent who gets his hands “dirty” in the field — named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) tells Smiley that he learned from a Russian agent that there is a mole that holds the highest rank in “The Circus.” The people suspect are those who are now running the bureau are Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
Smiley is charged by the Minister (Stuart Graham) to run a secret mission outside of the agency and track down and reveal the double agent. He forms his own team of personally-chosen agents to work with him, with the main one being Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch from BBC’s “Sherlock”) who specializes in getting information. As Peter weaves his way through the agency spying on his superiors, he gains access to information above his pay grade. The uncertainty of whether there even is a mole makes the investigation even harder to conduct without any actual evidence to prove otherwise.
Mistrust abounds as the four men running the circus start to get Top Secret Russian military information and say it comes from a source that they named Witchcraft. They refuse to name their informant which makes Smiley and his team work to penetrate the shroud of secrecy to trace if there even is a secret source. As the movie progresses alliances are tested and broken, hidden truths are uncovered and the mass of uncertainty percolates as anyone of the four leaders could be the mole. Will the mole be unearthed before any more harm can come to this organization and in effect their progress against Soviet Russia during this hostile time?
Directed by Tomas Alfredson (2008’s “Let the Right One In”), “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” is a hard film to describe in detail without giving away the ending or revelations, so I will do my best to stay away from the main point of the film — Who is the mole? — and focus on the rest of it. Yes, this is a spy film, but not of the James Bond action variety. This war is fought in a game of whits, through hidden meetings, intelligence gathering and a lot of watching and deciphering the enemy’s movements and strategies.
This movie is a unique throwback to films of a past generation that didn’t rely on explosions and special effects to keep an audience entertained. It simply is asking many questions, to the characters and of the audience themselves. With subtle hints and gestures to be analyzed, a quick look across a room to be examined later on and many more things of that variety. The cinematography and directing was great in focusing on the mood and really feeling the contention in the air. The film has a dark hue to it that makes it feel old in a way along with certain coldness to the actions and emotions seen onscreen.
The cast is an amazing cornucopia of talent spanning multiple generations and genres. Gary Oldman is the main focus in the film and while he does brilliant with this part that shows an unruffled disposition and there are many small contributing roles that help this movie along as well. I really enjoyed Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, a very small role but one of the more emotional points in the story are found in his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch has a slightly larger role in the film and I thought he played the part of an agent spying on his superiors very well. One other considerably small but vibrant role was that of Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs, a faithful researcher who is quickly dismissed from the agency when she stumbles upon some information she shouldn’t have. Her boisterous and larger-than-life persona makes her a standout in her few scenes.
Now, the downfall of this film isn’t the acting, or even the script; it’s the pacing and the length. It is far too long for a movie that is a lot of talking. The running time of two hours and seven minutes seems immeasurably longer due to these slow spots and monochromatic landscapes. This is the reason why the common audience member either won’t get the film or will be bored. In my theater, a group got up and left halfway through the film. I wasn’t bored, but I was wishing for a bit more to happen onscreen.
It is an intense movie, but one that is lacking that same intensity in action. Another thing that will hurt this film with the average movie-goer is that there are so many characters with code names and some of them are working on both sides of the spectrum that it is hard to judge where their true dedications lay. They do attempt to reveal a lot of these situations through flashbacks and revelations towards the end of the film, but by this point you may have tuned out.
So “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” is a mental drama full of espionage, but it lacks in its pacing and length. If you are a fan of some of the older films of this genre you will love it, but if you’re looking for an intense action film, you may want to skip it.
“Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy” is rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language and open in limited release now and also stars Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Svetlana Khodchenkova and Konstantin Khabenskiy.
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That’s one heck of a cast.
I saw this today and it was fantastic. It harkens back to the spy films of the 60’s and 70’s. I guess the humans who left were looking for CGI robots or electric aliens. Perhaps next Christmas.
Sounds like reading the book before seeing the film might be helpful – but basically you’ve written a great review that let’s us know the viewer must come prepped to use a brain to follow the intricacies.