Movie review: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (2011)

In theaters

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” written by Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan and John le Carre (novel), directed by Tomas Alfredson, 127 minutes, rated R.

The difference between good and great espionage thrillers can be like night and day. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a great espionage thriller, putting those “good” films in the genre far in its rear-view.

The film avoids the cheap trickery, twists and turns that so many lesser-minded thrillers fall back on these days. Director Tomas Afredson builds the tension and drama through his characters, without the implementation of forced plot devices and fast-paced editing.

Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a veteran spy in Cold War-era London who is exiled from the highest tier of England’s Secret Intelligence Service (known as “The Circus”) alongside his overseer, Control (John Hurt), after a botched mission in Budapest. Shortly thereafter, the government taps Smiley to anonymously infiltrate The Circus and carry out Control’s mission of uncovering a Soviet mole hidden among his former colleagues.

The Circus, still reeling from the Budapest mission that left agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) physically and emotionally wounded, is made up of Percy Allelin (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). There’s an air of suspicion that each one carries — but is it actually present, or just a figment of our imagination borne from Smiley’s paranoia?

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” studies the fine line separating friends and foes, loyalty and betrayal, truth and fiction. Alfredson emphasizes this with recurring scenes from a Christmas party years in the past, which begins free of suspicion, and evolves into an effective plot device that reveals much about The Circus.

With characters that are so guarded and layered, Alfredson assembles a cast of some of the finest actors working today: Oldman, Firth, Jones, Hines, Dencik, Strong, Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham and Christian McKay.

Oldman’s Smiley is a fascinating character, a man who bides his time thoughtfully, meticulously choosing his spots to best his compatriots at the game they’re all playing. Smiley becomes a puppet master — always present, but hardly ever front-and-center. Or maybe it’s a role that Smiley plays from the onset.

Much like the spy subjects of his film, Alfredson keeps his distance from Smiley and company, methodically shooting them like a voyeur, watching the story slowly come into focus. There’s a patience to “Tinker Tailor,” but don’t let that fool you into believing that it’s slow or boring. It’s very much the opposite — a smart, gripping thriller that strings you along until its final moments. If ever there were a movie that could be described as a page turner — a term sadly inapplicable for obvious reasons — it would be “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

Grade: A

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2 Responses to Movie review: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ (2011)

  1. Nick Sambides Jr. says:

    If you didn’t give this movie a rave, Joel, I would have had to declare you an enemy asset and ship you back to Russia.

    Your review is spot-on, and I especially love this:

    “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” studies the fine line separating friends and foes, loyalty and betrayal, truth and fiction. Alfredson emphasizes this with recurring scenes from a Christmas party years in the past, which begins free of suspicion, and evolves into an effective plot device that reveals much about The Circus.

    I would add that Alfredson conveys the complexity of the material with a visual attack that focuses on layers — the multilevel Circus office, the ever-deepening look into the party via flashback, the way Smiley never removes his glasses. Alfredson always has us looking deeply into compositions layered with shadow and light and the meaning changes whenever it repeats. I love especially how Oldman wears Smiley’s owlish frames like a shield.

    This is a movie I will buy on Blu-Ray and watch again and again for its subtle, measured excellence.

  2. Mario says:

    Great review, Joel. I dug the movie, but think it definitely could have picked up the pace a little. Maybe I’m just too much of an “American” movie viewer (that’s what I’ve been told), but I thought it really dragged on the in middle. I was kind of bored for a while, to be honest.

    Gary Oldman, though, killed it. As always. I liked Cumberbatch too, and really enjoyed Tom Hardy’s character.

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