Monday, December 26, 2011

Review: "Tinker Tailor Solider Spy"

The power and the thrill of cinema was no more evident to me than after seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson's 2011 adaptation of a 1974 John le Carré novel. I saw the film with three friends and we had four distinctly different reactions. One was completely appalled. One was more than slightly confused. One enjoyed the film despite its confusing narrative. And I loved it even though it started too slowly. Yet there was one common thread amongst our critiques: Gary Oldman is brilliant as George Smiley. This is the fourth John le Carré adaptation that I have seen, following The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Tailor of Panama (20010 and The Constant Gardener (2005). All four films are slow-burning political thrillers, with The Constant Gardener ranking as one of my favourite films of all time. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy features a bevy of fantastic British actors, including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt. The story takes place in London in the 1970s and revolves around the hunt for a Soviet double agent in the upper echelon of the British secret service. Unfortunately the story is a little heavy and confusing. The film was adapted by husband and wife writing team Peter Straughan (who wrote 2009's The Men who Stare at Goats) and Bridget O'Connor, with whom she co-wrote all three of her screenwriting credits. I am not sure if they were fully able to grasp the complexity of le Carré's work. Le Carré worked for British intelligent (MI5 and MI6), and resigned upon the international success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). Le Carré, born David John Moore Cornwell, is still writing spy novels today, with Our Kind of Traitor released in 2010. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was not quite what I expected it to be, but it is still a well crafted British spy thriller. Gary Oldman's central performance is flawlessly brilliant, and will most likely be forgotten amidst the high number of great acting performances this year.

In 1973 a blown operation sends George Smiley (Oldman) into retirement. Control (John Hurt), the head of British intelligence, sent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest, Hungary to meet a Hungarian general wishing to sell information to the British. Prideaux is shot in the back by Soviet intelligence. Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) becomes the new Chief of the Circus (British Intelligence). Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is named his deputy, with Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) as close allies. These four men have established their hierarchy by delivering so-called Soviet intelligence. Smiley has always been suspicious of these four men and their allegiance to Britain. Smiley is then brought our of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of Intelligence, to investigate an allegation by Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) that there is a mole in a senior role in British Intelligence. Smiley works heavily with Tarr, who had been sent to Istanbul to investigate a Soviet Agent. Tarr is on the run after being accused of defecting and murdering a British station chief. Smiley also recruits Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Smiley learns that Prideaux had been sent to Budapest to learn the codename of the mole, as Control had codenamed the suspects Tinker (Alleline), Tailor (Haydon), Soldier (Bland) and Poorman (Esterhase).

I wish that Tomas Alfredson's adaptation had started with a bit more vigor. I found myself confused for at least the first twenty minutes of the film. At 127 minutes the film is not that long, but in a deliberately plotted story such as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy it is paramount to lure the viewer at the beginning. John le Carré has penned an intelligent spy story with a great number of twists and turns. The actors in the film are more than capable, but I was a little disappointed by the screenplay and direction. Alfredson, most well known for the Swedish-language film Let the Right One In (which, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was less successfully remade for American audiences). The film is Colin Firth's first major role after winning an Academy Award for The King's Speech (though the film was shot prior to his triumph). Colin Firth has become one of my favourite actors and sinks his teeth into a small but vital role. In his review, Roger Ebert lamented that the film was a little too confusing for him. The film did not feature any of the trademark devices to help keep the viewer ahead of the characters. I agree. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is an espionage thriller that lacks the decency to treat the audience as an ignorant viewer. We are forced to watch the film with a cautious eye and to piece the story together ourselves. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could have been better written and less confusing, but it is nonetheless a thrilling spy film. It is probably too intelligent for the average viewer and will frustrate many audiences, but it is a great film. You will certainly be confused by the plot, but Gary Oldman will astound you.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

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