Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

You know what I’ve been thinking about lately?

The Tree of Life.

(Yes I am aware that’s not the movie I’m reviewing here but just go with it).

I didn’t particularly care for the film, but what I heard from those who did is that it rewards patience, and insight, and a deeper understanding of the film’s themes- audience members who really put in the effort to take everything in end up getting more out of the film.

And so I wondered to myself, “Well, how about a movie that requires that same level of patience and attention to detail, but rewards viewers with the story itself and not something more abstract?”

Which brings me to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an easy-to-follow movie. The story is labyrinthine, with new threads appearing and layering upon one another again and again over the course of the film. Plus, it seems to focus more on building the tension and intrigue than it does on making sure the viewer knows what’s going on- making it that much harder to follow (large story points are presented with no fanfare whatsoever, so drift off for a moment and you might miss something big without realizing it).

Lucky for me, I happened to catch onto this pretty early on into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (please, at this point let me just refer to it as TTSS for brevity’s sake) and I spent the next two hours in a state of deep, deep focus. I ran over every single aspect of the plot in my head as I watched new things unfurl onscreen. I tried to figure out every character’s motives for every minuscule action. I (amateurishly) psychoanalyzed everyone and everything happening throughout TTSS.

And in doing so I got so very attached to this film.

TTSS starts out, more or less, with a simple idea. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) attempts to uncover a mole in “The Circus” (British Intelligence), having retired after handling a botched mission in Hungary. Oldman plays nearly every scene cool, composed, and near silent- everything we learn about who he is comes in a slow, purposeful trickle that builds over the course of the film. And it’s that build that makes everything so powerful- Smiley starts off as a stony facade, but as the story develops and the audience gets more glimpses into the heart of his character (often through tiny asides or details- a mention of having gone without sleep, a sense of distance between him and his drunken cohorts at the British Intelligence Christmas Party) we start to form a sense of closeness with him.

The plot works more or less the same way. What starts as a story about one failed mission adds more and more in one continuous stream- with every new character and plot development presented to us, the story becomes considerably denser and more difficult to follow. But, if you can follow along, the reward is pretty fantastic (besides the obvious reward of, you know, being able to follow the movie)- as everything builds towards its eventual climax, the tension in the film’s high points is truly remarkable. For a spy movie, there’s almost no gunplay whatsoever (I’m trying to think now and I can only come up with four actual bullets fired throughout the whole running time), and nearly all of that is in the film’s climactic moments. Plus, as everything up until that point was intelligence-and-information-related intrigue, when things finally become life-threatening the film gets a wonderful, gripping sense of dread.

And speaking of the ending, the final montage that ends the film is just so, so great. So great. Set to Julio Iglesias’ “La Mer” (it’s Bobby Darin’s “Beyond The Sea” in French), we get a last look at each player as the dust finally settles on the story, and the song’s peppy, upbeat nature works wonderfully as a contrast to just how many awful things have happened to each character over the course of the film.

Now, seeing as it’s awards season and I have the feeling Jean Dujardin is going to be winning this year’s Best Actor statue, I’d like to take a moment to shill on behalf of Gary Oldman’s talent.

Even though Dujardin was incredible in The Artist and totally deserves a win. That’s not the point here.

So, anyway on to the gushing-  I could name a whole bunch of actors who are very talented but mostly stick to a variation on the same role every time- Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, George Clooney (think about it- how often does Morgan Freeman play someone who ISN’T wizened by age? And when is Denzel NOT brash and headstrong) but Gary Oldman seems to have this innate ability to not always challenge himself with new and interesting roles, but also to always know exactly what movie he’s in.

Let me explain that last bit so it doesn’t sound so stupid. When the movie is campy (The Fifth Element), Oldman chews the scenery accordingly (to a hilarious extent). When the movie requires only the most serious of facial expressions (TTSS), Oldman throws down with an oscar-caliber performance. In the Batman films he does a fine job as Commissioner Gordon but never oversteps the boundaries of his role or attempts to overshadow the big heroes and villains- he does just what’s needed. And as Ignitus the Dragon in the 2006 video game The Legend of Spyro: A New Beginning, he has all the gravity and fire-breathing qualities that a… video game dragon… should have.

Anyway, just take a gander at his IMDB filmography and be amazed by how much variety is there.

Do it. I’ll wait.

You back? Ok good- because I’m just about to wrap this up, but as I do let me make the following comment:

I really liked this film. A whole lot. But let that not distract you, gentle reader, from its flaws- it is very, very hard to follow at times (while I was able to understand just about everything, it also took at least five minutes following most of the plot developments to digest and understand what I had just seen). It’s a movie you’d see if you’re prepared for a long night full of thought and analysis, and if you’re prepared to put in all that effort, it’s more than worth your while.

Also, as far as gripes go, when the villain is finally revealed (no spoilers, don’t worry), there’s not too much in the way of motive. Just that the villain has grown tired of Western culture and would prefer that the East would rise into power. And I assume money was probably involved too.

But really, in this kind of story it’s more of a whodunit than a whydunit.

And on that note I shall leave you once again. Until next time!


20 responses to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  1. Nicely done! So refreshing to hear from another human who didn’t enjoy The Tree of LIfe, which I found sickeningly pretentious. Haven’t seen TTSS, but I love Oldman, and your review has piqued my interest.

    • Glad to hear you liked the review! His next film, Wettest County, looks like it could be pretty great. Shia LaBeouf plays the lead character, but then you’ve got Oldman, Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, and Guy Pierce. Plus it’s a Prohibition-era crime drama, which is always fun.

  2. Considering that the movie is based upon the book, which is dense, very dense indeed and, as you observe, drops major points with little fanfare, it is no wonder that one must follow every moment at full attention.

    We watched the earlier movie years ago — all of our teens groan when we mention the title. It’s sounding like this new edition, however, is worth a go. Thank you for your most excellent, well written review.

    Thank you, also, for dropping by the Norwegian Artist and Liking Stonework.

    • Thanks for your comment! I haven’t seen the original BBC version, but I’m a little intrigued to see how the longer length affects the story.

      And I was glad to check out Stonework- half the fun of having a blog is getting a peek at all the other wonderful things people are doing with their creativity.

      • My memories of the BBC version are looooonnnnngg screen captures of Smiley’s face, his eyes darting from one side to the next, then dropping down in thought and contemplation. He looks up. Gives a little sigh. A slight smile twitches at the side of his mouth.

        “Hmmmm. Yes,” he intones.

        Multiply that over hours and hours and you pretty much have the gist of the original BBC version.

  3. Hey thanks for your kind words on my page! Really can’t believe that I haven’t seen this. It looks good. Really good and well written review. I following you now so will be checking back!

  4. I really want to watch this film. What do you think of the title of the movie, Adam? At first I thought it idiotic. But then Colin Firth wouldn’t participate in an idiotic project would it? The trailer was interesting and now after your review as well, I can’t wait to watch it.

    • Thanks for your kind words! The title is a little odd at first, but it’s (in case you didn’t know) based off of an English nursery rhyme, and is also used in the film to identify who may or may not be the mole.

      It’s a great film. Featuring an Oscar-nominated performance from Gary Oldman!

  5. The book was so complicated that it took the classic BBC miniseries something like 6 hours to capture the plot. I’m impressed that it could be made into a feature film, especially without (according to your review) loosing its quiet complexity.

    As far as idealogical motives go, though, check out the completely true story of the Cambridge Five — native Englishmen who were recruited during the Cold War at one of the best universities in the country and went on to be communist moles.

    • Iiiiiiinteresting. I’ll have to check out the Cambridge Five. And while I loved the film, I’m sure there are aspects of the miniseries that are miles ahead of the movie version just because of how much extra time there is to let things slow down a little. Plus, having Alec Guinness as Smiley doesn’t hurt at all.

  6. I, too, really enjoyed this film and experienced exactly what you wrote; an awareness that I really had to pay close attention and added enjoyment as time passes and I reflect on the film. The acting was excellent as well as the subtle visual aspects such as the grey and colorless look throughout and, by contrast, the bright and colorful scene in Paris. Also, the use of large windows that we find ourselves looking through on many occasions.

    Thanks for the review and for making me think about the film again!

    • Wasn’t the cinematography wonderful? I also loved how the muted grays and browns of the outside world were contrasted with that amazing checkerboard pattern in the Circus headquarters.

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