Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) is still playing in US theaters, but it’s available on DVD in the UK. That’s how I’m watching it here. It is my second viewing of the film and my opinion has remained roughly unchanged.
In the spy genre, there is Fleming and there is Le Carré. People, in their preferences, usually fall on either side as well. Those who like the flash, techie, womanizing, glam espionage action movie and those who like the gritty and morally ambiguous espionage thriller that emphasizes trade craft and politics. The great thing about the Casino Royale (2006) is that it started to move into a synthesis with moral ambiguity and action (with the action taking a great leap forward as well).
Control (John Hurt) thinks there is a mole in MI-6 (the Circus) and sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to pick up a general who knows the identity of said mole. Control gives code names. Is it Tinker, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Tailor, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Soldier, Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), or Begger Man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman)? Things go badly and Control and Smiley lose their jobs. Some time later, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) gets a hot tip on said mole, [Spoiler], and comes in to report. Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) calls in Smiley to find the mole. Smiley needs the help of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), on the inside, to do it. Can they do it? Can you possibly follow the plot and understand when you’ve been told the solution to the whole stinking thing? Let’s find out.
I saw the first adaptation of the book by the BBC on VHS, can you believe it, borrowed from the library. When I then saw this movie in theaters (which I was very very very excited to do), I found it nearly impossible not to think of each of these actors as playing their counterparts in the miniseries. “Oh, I see, Colin Firth is playing the Ian Richardson character. Why isn’t he balancing toast on his tea cup?” That’s pretty funny if you’ve seen the miniseries, but as you haven’t, it’s a meaningless allusion.
For that reason, therefore, judging performances was rather difficult. It’s a bit unfair to judge an actor for twenty minutes work against what his (and only once “her”) counterpart’s ten-fold opportunity. The second viewing made that problem a little less.
I still think Oldman for Best Actor is a bit of an odd choice. Compared with Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March (2011), there is an inverse proportion of acting range and movie quality–that is, Oldman was in the better movie, but Gosling gave the better performance. “Better performance” is also a bit unfair since Oldman is called upon to raise his voice but once and then only just a little. That just isn’t the role. It also isn’t enough time, as Alec Guinness received, to make it noteworthy.
Guillam is probably the second largest part in the movie/miniseries and Cumberbatch, as he’s brilliant at acting, measures up the best. Not quite the best, Hardy is a better Tarr and Hurt, also marvelous, is a better Control. But Cumberbatch gets the time and opportunity to actually act a little bit. He takes advantage. Not full advantage, but very near full.
As far as direction is concerned, I’d say Tomas Alfredson did a very good job. This is probably better directed than The Artist (2011) and The Descendants (2011) and I’d be happy to have seen Refn and Alfredson take their places–both Scandinavians, how about that. The images are clean and cool. One bit in particular where an elevator door opens to show Guillam waiting for its passenger is really strong.
One of the highlights, both good and bad, is the music. Up until the ending, I’d say that its some of the best placed and played music in any of the movies last year and I’m glad to see Alberto Iglesias was nominated. But then, the ending sequence is accompanied by a French version of Beyond the Sea, which is fine for irony’s sake, but the film failed to match the music at times. The most dramatic action of that sequence was underdeveloped and needed to accompany a swell that the music just doesn’t have. For that reason alone, I think they should have found a more dynamic song.
Still, had I not seen the miniseries, I probably would have done myself an injury in the theater with rapture and joy. This movie is all about its complicated plot and really depends on that to keep the audience. The characters and their complications are not allowed to flourish because there are too many working parts. That’s not a criticism, but a requirement to make this film what it is. What I mean to say is even then, even when I know the plot, I still really enjoy it. I think that’s about as high a recommendation as I can give.
If you’re in the mood for recommendations, the television show The Sandbaggers (1978-80) is a rather good understated show that nonetheless is about clandestine operations in practice. There’s also, of course Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982) which follow the story of George Smiley.