Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Release Date: January 6, 2012
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writers: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan (screenplay), John le Carré (novel)
Stars: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy
MPAA Rating: R
“I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”
– Robert McKee, Adaptation
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has a phenomenal ending. The closing montage, set to Julio Iglesias’ “La Mer” (made famous in this country with Bobby Darin’s English version “Beyond the Sea”), is a beautifully shot and edited sequence that is fulfilling both viscerally and emotionally. However, the journey getting to that final scene is an incredibly bumpy one. The film as a whole is clunky and slow, often struggling to hold the audience’s attention.
The film is almost defiantly slow. The opening sequence, with its glacially slow pacing, is reminiscent of a bygone era of filmmaking. There are five minutes of opening credits juxtaposed with random shots of people ambling around the city completing mundane tasks before we finally get to the proper opening scene. That scene, which establishes the central plot of the film – that there is a mole inside MI6, the British spy agency – is also quite slow. It isn’t until Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) arrives in Budapest, Hungary to uncover who the mole is, a mission that quickly goes haywire, that the film actually begins to establish any sort of pacing.
That’s not to say that the film becomes a nonstop action roller coaster from there. This is a story that is in no hurry to unfold. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is determined to figure out who the mole inside MI6 is, but he’s a patient man who wants to make sure he has all the facts before he makes a move. American audiences are used to Jack Bauer rushing into action, shouting at everyone and dodging gunfire as he uncovers the mole and swiftly carries out his own brand of justice. But Smiley, with his British disposition and courtesies, is more likely to calmly sip tea and ask polite, but pointed, questions in his quest to uncover the truth. To say the film is a slow burn is being generous.
Making matters worse, the entire film is dimly lit, often making it hard to see what’s happening in scenes (and occasionally making it hard to keep one’s eyes from sleepily falling shut). And it’s a period piece, set in the early 1970s during the Cold War, which may further alienate younger audience members. This is also a film that, I am not kidding, came with a flow chart at the screening I attended to help reviewers keep track of MI6’s organizational hierarchy and the various British slang used in the film. Luckily, the flow chart wasn’t really necessary, but the fact that someone thought it was needed shows you the problems this movie has with engaging its audience.
In this country, we have become accustomed to slickly produced and brightly lit thrillers that dive right into the action and never really let up. In many ways, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the antithesis of modern American filmmaking, which can make it a difficult film to get into. It’s overly stuffy and deliberately old fashioned. Instead of attempting to modernize this story, which was originally adapted into a British miniseries in 1979, it seems that director Tomas Alfredson is attempting to transport moviegoers into a lost era of cinema.
I’m not sure how wise a decision that ultimately was. While there is plenty to be argued about the state of modern filmmaking, a lot of the changes in pacing and storytelling have evolved as we’ve found more effective ways to craft films. And while giving a film a retro vibe can often be fun (like in The Artist), it’s important to make sure that the story doesn’t suffer because of it. However, if you can hang in there with this film and wade through the unnecessarily slow bits, it is a very fulfilling and well-acted movie.
The cast is top notch. Gary Oldman is unsurprisingly great in the lead role of George Smiley, managing to subtly convey a lot of unseen thoughts and emotions brewing beneath the surface. Mark Strong gives an absolutely phenomenal performance as Jim Prideaux, easily stealing every scene he’s in. John Hurt, Toby Jones and Tom Hardy also give very strong performances. And Colin Firth shines as Bill Haydon, a complex character which he is able to really sink his teeth into.
And that climactic scene really is something to behold. I definitely was wowed in the end. I just wish the journey getting there had been as exciting as the destination.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.