The best way to describe triple Oscar nominee Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as an anti-James Bond. Sure it’s an espionage thriller set during the Cold War like the Classic Connery Era of 007 films, but the similarities between the 2 literary adaptations end there.
While Ian Fleming’s British secret agent is a debonair ladies’ man, conducting most of his subterfuge in glittering casinos, 5-star hotels and exotic, sun-saturated locales, John le Carré’s hero, George Smiley – played here by Gary Oldman – looks like any other unimposing, middle-aged government employee. Soft-spoken, cerebral Smiley never leaves the gloomy UK, instead orchestrating his espionage efforts from smoky, budget hotel rooms and soulless Modernist office blocks piled with files and used tea cups. And this is when he’s not brooding over his unfaithful wife or swimming laps in a muddy London river under iron-grey skies.
In short, if you’re looking for the escapist action of a Bond film, stay far away from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. However, if you’re in the market for a more realistic spy thriller that rewards patient, mature-minded viewers, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should be top of your list.
Set in 1973, this sleek, surprisingly comprehensible novel adaptation takes place in the aftermath of a failed information-gathering mission in Eastern Bloc Hungary. Smiley is forced to resign in disgrace, along with “Control” (John Hurt), the head of British Intelligence. But when agents Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch come forward with claims of a mole right at the top of MI6, Smiley is tasked with determining which of his old friends and colleagues – “Tinker” (Toby Jones), “Tailor” (Colin Firth), “Soldier” (Ciarán Hinds) – is in bed with the Soviets.
After an electric prologue that makes spy work look credibly messy and paranoia-doused, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes its foot off the accelerator. In fact, it’s worth noting that the film is slow to reach boiling point again, and its pacing can be frustrating at times – pulling taut for short stretches and then going slack. The latter typically relates to the “current events” timeline, and the former, flashbacks as well as espionage scenes, past and present.
The espionage scenes are by far the most gripping thing about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the strongest sees Cumberbatch stealing documents from his own government. It’s a remarkably well constructed and tense sequence, on a par with the best on-screen heists of all time.
In terms of character and performances, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a fantastic cast all around, and everyone delivers the goods to the point where it’s difficult to single out only 1 or 2 actors (for the record, Gary Oldman received his first ever Academy Award nomination for his work here). Characters aren’t really developed however, and at least one of the title suspects receives criminally little screen time.
This said, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy compensates for this shortfall with an unexpected amount to say about the reality of being a spy during the Cold War Era. These men don’t approach espionage with James Bond’s breezy confidence and a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em attitude. They are very much human, prone to psychological weaknesses and frustrations. They’re worn down by the constant secrecy and betrayal. Distrust rules, and most are filled with shame, thinking fondly back to WWII years when the Secret Service was a tight-knit, family-like unit, proudly fighting the Nazis and co. instead of double-dealing in dingy alleyways. Even Hardy’s globe-trotting assassin, the closest character in the film to 007, is no ice-cold killing machine.
Then there’s the havoc that the secrecy requirements of the job play on relationships. Unable to really form meaningful relationships with outsiders, these men die alone, cling stoically to toxic relationships, or direct their affections internally. In a film where a lot is left unsaid, there really is a lot of interesting subtext for the audience to base their interpretations on.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of those rare movies committed to understatement at all times instead of resorting to obviousness and excess. This does mean that the film’s conclusion – its big double agent reveal – feels a bit too subdued, but it is in keeping, tonally, with everything that preceded it. In the end, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may not be a perfect film but it’s expertly made and acted. And in addition to greater realism, it refreshingly provides plenty of brain food to digest.
Last Updated: March 26, 2012