Spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy defies Hollywood convention

Gary Oldman (at left) and John Hurt star in spy thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cerebral British espionage thriller that flies in the face of Hollywood convention. 

The film, set in the midst of the Cold War, boasts virtually no action sequences, car chases or explosions. Guns are rarely wielded and most of the film’s ensemble cast deals with the inner-workings of government intelligence in enclosed offices, with drab muted colors. 

In other words, die-hard 007 fans may want to tread lightly.

The film is based upon a best-selling British spy novel by John Le Carre. Le Carre went on to pen a handful of novels telling the ongoing story of lead character George Smiley, played here by Gary Oldman. 

The plot centers upon Smiley, a retired former deputy head of Intelligence Services assigned to investigate the possibility of a traitor within the ranks of the agency. The service, which is referred to in the film as “The Circus,” is headed by Control (John Hurt), a man who studies a series of intelligence leaks and becomes convinced that there is a Russian mole.  

The film opens on John Hurt’s character as he has learned that a Hungarian general who would have known the mole’s identity may be a possible defector. He assigns Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to go to Budapest to talk to this man. 

The mission goes horribly wrong and serves to alert the Soviets, and set the tone for the course of the film. Sometime after, Control dies from a heart attack and Smiley is brought out of retirement to work the case.

The list of suspects is narrowed to five men close to Control. Since Smiley is close to the organization, he and agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) perform their investigation outside the watch of the Circus, since anyone could ultimately be a suspect.

The movie introduces the five main suspects one by one, and slowly we become acquainted with them. In a film that boasts perhaps the best ensemble cast of 2011, we quickly recognize each of the iconic British actors featured. “Tinker” is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), “Tailor” is Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and “Soldier” is Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds). “Spy” of course would be whoever actually turns out to be the mole.

Set amidst the muted brownish tones of 1970s England, the film is superbly directed by Tomas Alfredson. I’m sure that international espionage plays in real life much as it is portrayed in Tinker Tailor and everything about the film’s setup feels pinpoint accurate. 

I get the feeling, though, that this film represents a very specific literary genre that will attract buffs and fans alike. I’m still not sure if it’s the kind that easily translates to the big screen.

I’ve never read Le Carre’s book, nor do I know a single thing about the spy genre that the film stems from. Tinker Tailor’s screenplay only muddies the confusion. With flashbacks, crosscuts, and oftentimes mystifying allusions, my response ranged from mere confusion to, at times, feeling utterly lost. But, then again, I’m not sure I was supposed to feel any differently. 

Here is a film that seems to make no defense for the fact that a huge chunk of the audience will be scratching their heads for the bulk of its snaky plot.

Still, Tinker Tailor offers its share of wonderfully cinematic moments. With a more conventional narrative style, Tinker Tailor would probably attract enough of an audience to make a serious Oscar run, but the double-edged sword is that some of Alfredson’s methodically paced sequences would most-likely feel far too rushed and underdeveloped if forced to suit mainstream audiences. 

It’s a conundrum that makes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy worth seeing, but surprisingly difficult to linger over for any extended period of time afterwards.

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