Historical fiction espionage thrillers have a devoted fan base, as do the novels of John le Carré. These folks are an intellectual lot, stimulated by the secret dealings of the world’s intelligence agencies, which during the Cold War were at an all-time high. And they can keep “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a film that despite its expert craftsmanship does little to indulge viewers in the simple joys of a spy thriller.
It admittedly sounds pathetic to rebuke a film for not playing to the interests of the feeble-minded general public, but in a film this loaded with talent, one that’s sure to attract moviegoers outside of the select circle for which it’s intended, a cold shoulder seems harsh. Audiences need to be aware the film is unrelentingly slow and completely plot-driven, that little reward comes at the end of the two-hour tunnel.
That’s not to say the filmmaking of “Tinker Tailor” lacks any semblance of quality. In fact, it’s masterfully constructed; the script and Tomas Alfredson’s direction simply choose to be uncompromising in the vision for and presentation of le Carré’s story.
A summary does it no justice (if it can be deemed deserving of justice), but “Tinker Tailor” focuses on former British Intelligence officer George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who’s forced from his retirement to investigate the men he worked closely with for many years in order to determine which of them is a long-standing Russian mole. Among them are Haydon (Colin Firth), Alleline (Toby Jones), Esterhase (David Dencik) and Bland (Ciarán Hinds). Each gives off suspicious vibes, and it’s clear something major is at play.
Other characters drift in and out of the picture, including Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who help Smiley get closer to his answer, but their presence is fleeting and the film treats them and every character as the very chess pieces used to embody them. We get glimpses of emotion and humanity from Alfredson and these remarkable actors, but the script simply refuses us unfettered access to these characters. It basically sucks the performances dry: This might be the most well-acted film you’ll see all year, but you won’t find a soul who’ll go on the record with that.
Slow burn would be the best way to describe the suspense, but there’s no bomb at the end of the fuse. Alfredson consciously mutes any big reveals or moments when culmination seems in sight, and the moments the story sucks you in or gives you a piece of the puzzle, it always finds a way to languish and lose your attention. At least there’s a sense of comfort in knowing this was an artistic choice, not simply the result of ignorant filmmaking. At the same time, apathy — artistically rationalized or not — is not an emotion anyone enjoys leaving a movie theater with.
Regardless, Alfredson, who some would say made one of the best films of the last decade with the Swedish coming-of-age vampire thriller “Let the Right One In,” shows he’s a filmmaking force that will be reckoned with in due time. The shots are framed gracefully and the suspense and emotion powerfully minute and scrupulous — when he chooses them to be. It’s just a shame that he’s a slave to the plot, which runs the entire show.
“Tinker Tailor” leaves an impression of a great film, but if forced to illustrate exactly how, the well is dry. It offers a certain population a meticulous and expertly crafted espionage drama, but it deprives the majority of film’s fundamental pleasures. It definitely could be a film that achieves greatness upon repeat viewings when the plot becomes less of a bear, but as an immediate impact film it simply has none.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, John le Carré (novel)
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong