Unreal Movie Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In a world where Bourne, Bond and Ethan Hunt  would have us believe that spy games and espionage all involve shaky cam martial arts fights, hundred mile an hour car chases and a constant cacophony of explosions, TinkerTailor Soldier Spy would disagree.

It’s a thinking man’s spy thriller, adapted from the famed John le Carre novel that spawned decades of imitators. A few shots are fired yes, but there’s nary an action sequence to be found, but with the power of the story and how brilliantly it’s executed by the cast, your heart might be beating just as fast as it would in an action film as the mystery unfolds.

It’s mostly research and mind games, but Tinker, Tailor takes what could have been a dry concept and makes it quite exciting. It’s reminiscent of the similarly excellent subtle American spy catcher film, Breach, though there’s no true story here being used as a basis.

Gary Oldman looks 100 in this movie.

There’s a spy buried in the ranks of the upper echelons of British Intelligence, or The Circus, as it’s commonly called in the early ’70s. Control (John Hurt) is convinced of a mole’s presence, and it’s only after his forced retirement and subsequent death that Smiley (Gary Oldman) his former number two is tasked with uncovering the Russian plant.

There are only four men under suspicion, five if you include Smiley himself who at one point was indeed a suspect. The list includes the Tinker  (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciaran Hinds) and the Poor Man (David Denick). What, you didn’t think they’d go out and name one of them the spy did you?

Smiley’s operation is off the books, and has only a lower level aide, Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch), to help him. Soon after however, one of his former associates turns up  (Tom Hardy) with crucial information relating to the investigation, having been previously ignored, then subsequently hunted by the unknown mole when he revealed what he knew.

The ’70s were not a time of good hair.

There’s a lot of file stealing, phone tapping and the like, though on rare occasion do spies and agents on both sides get butchered or shot. Suspicion is cast on Toby Jones’ Tinker, as he has a golden goose of a Russian informant who has been giving unbelievable information to the intelligence agency. Also with seeming ill-intent is the foreign-born Poor Man, who previously sided with Tinker against Control. Firth’s Tailor was sleeping with Smiley’s wife at one point, and Soldier? I don’t believe the man said a word the entire film, and he must have had a lot of material end up on the cutting room floor.

Though all characters are well-acted by their various English thespians, Oldman’s Smiley is the most curious. He’s slow moving, slow speaking, and kind of a blank slate for the audience to project themselves onto in order to solve the mystery from his perspective.

The winding plotline of le Carre’s original novel is faithfully recreated here, and the result is an exceptionally complex, yet understandable storyline that involves everything from national security to covert gay love affairs, all woven seamlessly together.

It’s a masterwork of the genre which owes much to the original le Carre story, but also to its phenomenal cast under the direction of Tomas Alfredson, who you  may be surprised to learn also directed the Swedish horror classic, Let the Right One In. Despite intense subject matter, his methodical style is present here, and the whole film has a sense of foreboding and tension that doesn’t dissipate until its closing moments. And judging by le Carre’s novel collection, this isn’t the last adventure of George Smiley, and it’s entirely possible we might see the character return.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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  1. I saw it Saturday and while I felt the performances of Gary Oldman, John Hurt, and Benedict Cumberbatch (is a more British name possible?) were excellent and Oldman should rightfully win his first Oscar, the movie itself needed more structure. I found it hard to follow, and most of the people I heard talking afterward said the same thing. At one point, it looked like all four were guilty. A minute earlier, it looked like it was Gary Oldman himself. All the while, the relevance of Mark Strong and Tom Hardy was rarely put at the forefront.

    I personally felt that this was one of the worst uses of flash backs I have ever seen. Not that it was bad to use them, just that we had no way of knowing what was a flashback and what wasn’t. For example, I thought it was pretty obvious that Mark Strong had been killed in the opening scene. Then he shows up at school and because it wasn’t well defined how the flashbacks were presented, I thought we watching a flashback to a cover identity or his life before the ‘Circus.’ I also didn’t like how they revealed Control’s death. They just showed someone (never explicitly showing John Hurt’s face) in a bed, seemingly dead. They then mention a few scenes afterward that he was dead.

    It almost felt like they were trying to confuse the viewer to make it harder to guess whether it was Tinker, Tailor, Solider, or Spy that was the mole. Even if that is the case, I think they failed greatly. Either way, though, Gary Oldman deserves his first Oscar.

  2. Josh what the spoilers please, why be so cavalier about plotlines and such? Not having seen the movie I don’t know if what you spelled out was a given or something revealed during the film.

  3. Sorry about that, I don’t generally comment on films here. I’m used to sites like /Film where spoilers in comments are welcome. I didn’t mean to ruin the film for anyone, though the only thing that is really important to the storyling that I revealed is that not all 4 are moles. Everything else I said, really, is revealed within the first ten minutes.

    Again, sorry. I did not know any better.

  4. Thanks for the info! Listen, I thought I’d mention a new film coming out in February that I recently discovered. In today’s world, it’s uncommon to find good clean movies with a redeeming theme – but Deadline is just that. Starring Eric Roberts & Steve Talley is a great film based on a true Southern story. A young journalist decides to pick up a 20 yr old unsolved racially motivated murder case to try get to the bottom of it & find some redemption & healing in the small town. Checkout deadlinefilm.com to watch the trailer – I think it’s a film you would enjoy!

  5. With so much information being thrown at us, I wish that there was much more time for all of it to just sink in but I liked the fact that the film made you pay attention to every little detail as this story just kept building and building. Everybody here in this cast is great too, especially Oldman who perfectly brings this flick together. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

  6. Great film and solid review. However, unlike what you said, it is based somewhat on real life events. Firth’s character is inspired by Kim Philby, a high ranking MI6 officer who spied for the KGB.

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