© 2012 Ray Wong
An espionage thriller set in the depth of the Cold War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is surprisingly somber and character-driven.
Control (John Hurt), head of the "Circus" (MI6), realizes that there may be a mole within the highest rank of the Circus, he sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to check out a source, Prideaux is shot in an operational disaster, and Control is forced out in disgrace. His deputy, George Smiley, is also forced into semi-retirement. However, after Control is killed, Smiley is recruited to find out who the double-agent is. The suspicion turns to Circus' new head Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), his new deputy Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).
Smiley recruits Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) in his covert operation. It turns out that Gulliam's subordinate, Rick Tarr (Tom Hardy), is the one who blew the whistle. Tarr is on the run, as he has key information from a reliable source close to Moscow. Tarr returns to London and hides under Smiley's protection.
Smiley convinces Peter to break into Circus's record room to find important information. Meanwhile, Smiley has a chat with Prideaux, who survived the Soviet assassination and interrogation. Piecing all the pieces together, Smiley finally devices a plan to trap and expose the mole, but not within personal sacrifices.
Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight) is of course brilliant as George Smiley. At first, we have to wonder if Smiley is himself the mole, and Oldman successfully makes us doubt him. Oldman's understated and quiet, introspective performance gives the character his deserved gravitas. He carries the film through and through.
The huge cast of veteran actors complete the ensemble. John Hurt (Immortals) has a relative small but pivot part, and he does an excellent job. Colin Firth (The King's Speech) is dashing and charismatic. Toby Jones (The Mist) is wonderfully harsh and rude, while Ciaran Hinds (The Debt) stays mostly in the background. Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) does a fine job as Peter Guilliam, and Tom Hardy (Inception) is affecting as the agent on the run. But the standout is Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes), whose soulful performance of a conflicted man is memorable.
Adapted from John le Carre's difficult spy thriller, the screenplay by Bridget O'Connor (Sixty Six) and Peter Staughan (The Debt) is just as difficult to follow, if not more. Started in media res, the story unfolds in a nonlinear manner, often interrupted by flashbacks and backstories to fill in the blanks. While the plot really begins with Rick Tarr's discovery, we don't really get to meet him until halfway through the story; the rest is, thus, told in flashbacks. Such storytelling technique can be suspenseful, but I find it annoying instead. There really is no need to tell it in such a haphazard fashion, with so many flashbacks intercutting and stopping the momentum of the main plot.
The writers may think this technique makes the story a thinking men's thriller. But I find it obstructive and difficult, and often it dampens the emotional impact. Further complicated with a complex plot, the story becomes muddled and it takes extreme concentration to understand what is going on. And I did, but the payoff isn't worth it, in my opinion -- I already guessed who the mole was. Granted, I credit the writers for leaving enough clues to help us solve the mystery ourselves. And there are some scenes that are suspenseful and well done -- for example, when Peter tries to "burglarize" the Circus. And the scene, near the ending, with Prideaux, is practically epic and tragic.
Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) has a very good eye. The production is handsome and period appropriate. The mood is excellent. The pacing, however, seems slow and disjointed at times. There are many fast cuts and montages that may simply go over our heads -- it'd take a few more viewings to understand the symbolism or hidden meanings. Like the screenplay, the intercutting of flashbacks and forward plot can be disorienting. Compounded with a huge cast of characters and plot twists, it becomes a lot of work for the audience.
That said, I do enjoy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I think it's intelligent, and has enough thrills and suspense to satisfy fans of espionage thrillers, but also enough character development (and good acting to go with that) to satisfy fans of drama. We come to really care about these characters, and that is a plus. Still, with the difficult storytelling and complicated plot structure, I find it hard to digest. Perhaps I'd tinker with my opinion after a few more viewings.
Stars: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan (based on novel by John le Carre)
Distributor: Sony Classics
MPAA Rating: R for violence, some nudity and sexuality, and language
Running Time: 127 minutes
Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 7
Production - 8
Total - 7.2 out of 10.0