Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Screenplay: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan (based on the novel by John le Carré)
Stars: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), John Hurt (Control), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Stephen Graham (Jerry Westerby), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina), Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon), Katrina Vasilieva (Ann Smiley), William Haddock (Bill Roach), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2011
Country: France / U.K. / Germany
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Blu-Ray
Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyShrouded in ashen cigarette smoke, heavy silences, backroom intrigue, and horridly despondent early ’70s British interior décor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy unfolds with maximum perplexity, ensuring that we will never, despite being able to grasp the stakes and gravity of individual scenes, be sure exactly what is going on. The 1974 source novel by John le Carré has been frequently described as “labyrinthine,” and when the BBC adapted it to the small screen in 1979 with Alec Guinness, they had the luxury of 350 minutes of running time. Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, on the other hand, have tried to boil the novel’s narrative and emotional complexities down to just over 120 minutes, and although by all accounts they have successfully captured the tone and spirit of the novel, all of its plot strands feel either truncated or vague, giving us little to grab onto beyond the hazy tones of deceit and desperation.

The crux of the story is that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the “Circus,” the highest echelon of the British intelligence agency, and has been there for some time. Control (John Hurt), the leader of the Circus, sends one of his agents, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), to Soviet-controlled Budapest to bring in a general who supposedly wants to defect and knows the name of the mole. Unfortunately, the mission (which is not, as Control puts it, “above board”) turns into a disaster with no defection and Prideaux getting a bullet to the back. The Budapest sequence is the first of several particularly confusing elements in the film, as all evidence suggests that Prideaux is killed, so when he shows up later in the film as a teacher at a private boys’ school, our first inclination is to think it’s a flashback of some sort when, in fact, it is not.

The botched mission costs the already politically threadbare Control his job, as well as his righthand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a taciturn, consummate professional who watches very closely and says very little (his first line of dialogue is a full 20 minutes into the film). The Circus is turned over to Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who is seeding his own private operation code-named “Witchcraft” that is built around a secret Soviet source. News of the mole does not die with Control, though, as another British agent named Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) comes into contact with Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the wife of a Soviet delegate who claims to know the identity of the mole. Smiley is brought out of his forced retirement to ferret out the mole, which essentially means spying on his former colleagues, the most powerful men in the Circus, who include Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hands), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Along with Tarr, who is suspected by some of having defected, Smiley works with an agent named Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he sends to collect information, often from the very British intelligence agency for which he is currently working.

On paper, then, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sounds like a captivating exercise in old-school espionage, and it successfully evokes the gray haze of Cold War intrigue when there were two clearly demarcated sides stealthily trying to undermine each other in a war fought in safehouses and back alleys with secret codes and false identities. The problem is that this material works much better on the page, at least in the kind of depth that the film is valiantly attempting to plumb. John le Carré, who worked as a British secret agent before becoming a best-selling writer, knows the world of espionage inside and out, and the pleasures of his books are in the deep textures of his intimate, insider knowledge; thus, even if his particular terminology—“chicken feed,” “treasure,” “scalp hunters,” etc.—are made up, we know that they derive from familiarity with exactly that kind of insider jargon. In a long novel and with the luxury of time, that kind of multi-layered density can be imminently rewarding, but on screen it tends to fly over the heads and under the heels of those who are not already well-versed in le Carré’s terminology.

Some of it can be picked up, but it tends to make scenes that are already vague downright confusing, which robs us of our investment. Under the direction of Tomas Alfredson, who helmed the superior Swedish horror film Let the Right One In (2008), individual scenes, like the one in which Guillam concocts a simple, but clever bit of misdirection in order to steal files out of the British intelligence archives, work brilliantly. However, their placement in the larger scheme of things gets lost in the fog. Alfredson is clearly aiming for the cerebral, and at times Tinker Tailor achieves with great clarity the intensity of men in action who are so used to telling and ferreting out lies that the idea of real truth has long since ceased to matter; their profession has become a game. The emotional stakes are much more fuzzy, and subplots involving Tarr’s commitment to Irina or Smiley’s pain over losing his wife feel tacked on and genuinely inconsequential. When Alfredson turns on the suspense or in sudden moments of vicious violence, we feel the rush of the moment, but rarely how that moment necessarily fits with the others, leaving us with individual pieces that never quite add up.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish DTS 5.1 surround
  • French DTS 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • Audio commentary by director Tomas Alfredson and actor Gary Oldman
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: First Look” featurette
  • Deleted scenes
  • Interview with actor Gary Oldman
  • Interview with actor Colin Firth
  • Interview with actor Tom Hardy
  • Interview with director Tomas Alfredson and co-screenwriter Peter Straughan
  • Interview with author John Carré
  • DistributorUniversal Studios Home Entertainment
    Release DateMarch 20, 2012

    As I noted in my review of the film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is dark, dark, dark. Virtually all of the interiors are dank and dimly lit, with pools of yellowish light that cast some amber tones into the darkness, but still leave the cluttered backgrounds murky. Universal’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer does a fine job of bringing as much detail and delineation to the image as possible while still maintaining a strong presence of grain that gives the feel of a film made in the early 1970s. Contrast and black levels are spot on, and while the color palette is limited largely to amber tones, ashen grays, and metallic blues, it is nicely rendered and appropriate to the look of the film. There are virtually no primary colors to be found anywhere; the closest the film comes is the regular presence of burnt orange, especially inside the room where the Circus meets. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround soundtrack is heavy on the subtle nuances of ambient noise, since this is a particularly dialogue-heavy film. However, there are some scenes that include strong background tones and activity in the surround channels (such as the echoes of the Budapest sequence near the beginning), and Alberto Iglesias’s musical score is nicely spread around for maximum impact.

    Director Tomas Alfredson (who speaks perfect English with barely even an accent) and actor Gary Oldman have recorded an audio commentary together, and Alfredson jokes near the beginning that the film is “too complicated” to watch without them. Well, that may be not entirely true (a lot of it clicked into place for me on a third viewing), but it certainly helps. They have quite a few pauses and silences, but they also offer some intriguing analysis and information about the production. A 13-minute episode of HBO’s “First Look” series dedicated to the film is, despite all the cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, primarily a lengthy promotional trailer, rather than a making-of featurette. The disc also includes half a dozen deleted scenes (running 6 minutes total), the longest of which is an unbroken shot of Oldman cooking and eating an egg, and video interviews with actors Gary Oldman (8 min.), Colin Firth (7 min.), and Tom Hardy (4 min.); Alfredson and co-screenwriter Peter Straughon (7 min.); and novelist John le Carré (32 min.), the latter of which is by far the most interesting.

    Copyright © 2012 James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Universal Studios Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

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