REVIEW: “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (***1/2)

Posted by · 8:22 am · September 5th, 2011

Venice Film Festival

An uncharacteristically dark Venetian downpour greeted this morning’s premiere screening of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and if some flashbulbs of lightning last night hadn’t already previewed the turn in weather, I’d suspect the pervasively, necessarily drab atmospherics of Tomas Alfredson’s artful John le Carré adaptation of bleeding out from the screen and into the beyond.

Looking for all the world as if the print has been stewed in black tea before being left to gather a few months’ worth of dust in the projection room — and that’s a good thing, I hasten to add — the film proves a happy marriage between two very different brands of understated precision: the British scholarliness of le Carré’s dense espionage lore and the icier Scandinavian calm that Alfredson brought to his breakout vampire drama, “Let the Right One In.”

In many ways, Alfredson directs le Carré’s self-described “little gray men” of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service as they are themselves vampires of the Cold War: lurking in irremovable half-light, striking efficiently and selectively, and only notionally acquainted with the concept of sunlight, these thickly-tweeded spies appear to bear the burden of their profession as a lifelong alibi for the avoidance of intimacy, social functionality and even standard-issue conversation.

“I don’t know about you, George, but I feel seriously underfucked,” says a prematurely retired female agent, played by Kathy Burke with a sad twinkle that says everything about the heart-hollowing effects of a life spent tracing the shadows of others.

The “George” in question is Gary Oldman’s Smiley, himself separated from his unseen wife, a veteran lieutenant of The Circus (the insiders’ codename for MI6) who finds himself, with his supervisor Control (an ideally crisp but weather-beaten John Hurt)  put out of service following a junior colleague’s botched Hungarian mission.

His lonesome London holiday is short-lived: the revelation that an unidentified mole is burrowing deep into the Circus’s musty corridors prompts the British government to place him in pursuit of the offending double agent — this despite the fact that Control regards Smiley himself as one of five suspects, a group for whom (minus the “Poor Man” figure) the film is named. Already a professional ghost of sorts, this turn of events pushes Smiley into even shadier self-erasing territory, as the fraught cat’s-cradle of mid-1970s international relations continue to smolder around this local crisis.

A more detailed breakdown of the narrative would unproductively consume the remainder of this review; as it stands, screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor (to whom the film is dedicated) have evidently sweated blood trying to fillet and discipline le Carré’s tightly packed 400-page novel into a two-hour film that is still stylistically required to leave the impression of a slow burn. The much-loved 1979 adaptation of “Tinker, Tailor” for British television had five hours in which to complete this mission, so it’s remarkable that the big-screen interpretation feels so much of a piece with it on levels both dramatic and aesthetic, even as certain judicious cuts and short cuts have been made. You’d have to be a serious stickler to feel that either source has been betrayed in Alfredson’s more ambitiously visualized conception; its slightly fussy meticulousness may even be its chief hindrance.

Some le Carré loyalists may mourn the unavoidable curtailment of certain character arcs, and even if there’s a slight air of methodical parsimony to the way scenes and lines have been dished out among the men below Oldman, certain faces in the film’s impeccable ensemble do get short-changed. (For the audience, this is a pretty luxurious concern to have: better to have an actor as economically vivid as Ciarán Hinds than a dull one in a truncated role.)

Still, There are multiple momentary pleasures to be had across this spread of Britain’s finest — the shivery dignity of Colin Firth’s final scene, or even the way Simon McBurney ostentatiously bites into a slice of toast — but it’s the ever-impressive Tom Hardy who, together with the aforementioned Burke, most memorably seizes his metered screen time, bringing the same louchely knowing intelligence to proceedings that he used to breathe air into last year’s “Inception,” tempered with the darting fearfulness of a character who scarcely trusts his own words.

As Smiley, Oldman has perhaps handed himself the toughest task of all: with cherished memories of Alec Guinness’s TV portrayal weighing heavily on his shoulders, he has chosen to tread a similarly dry path of expression and gesture. Eyes frequently shielded by the character’s trademark cola-bottle spectacles, he works his own personality into sly infective details and hovers patiently around many scenes before snatching one for a moving, quivering monologue; it could be the one that secures the actor his long-overdue Oscar nomination, but for the most part, it’s selflessly subtle work that recognizes the character’s responsibility to fade into Alfredson and DP Hoyte van Hoytema’s carefully autumnal palette of dun browns and flannely charcoals.

Rarely has a perversely beautiful lack of vitality been so integral to a film’s success: for all the accomplished work done on the storytelling front, principal memories of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” may well linger on Maria Djurkovic’s splendidly down-at-heel production design, a veritable rabbit-warren of graying wood, petrified office furniture and gloriously tasteless bursts of contemporary modernism, like the queasily orange graphic pattern that papers the Circus’s main conference room. Everyone on set and off seems to have taken their cue from these worn-in but hardly comforting surroundings — Alberto Iglesias’s mournfully brass-heavy score is another asset.

Alfredson was an inspired but sensitive choice to direct this potentially outmoded material, and his delicate mood-cultivating sensibility reaps the same rare rewards that it did in his previous hit. A classy throwback to the pleasures of long-view tale-spinning, and an evocation of a time and place fading before its occupants’ own eyes, this is as inactively riveting a thriller as anyone is allowed to make these days.

(Images: Focus Features)

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47 responses so far

  • 1 9-05-2011 at 8:41 am

    JJ1 said...

    Sounds exactly as I’d hoped, really. Thanks for that, Guy. :)

  • 2 9-05-2011 at 8:42 am

    Max said...

    Guy, excellent review. Really looking forward to this one.

    Kudos on the Venice coverage this far. Its been uniformly excellent. Looking forward to your thoughts on Wuthering Heights…

  • 3 9-05-2011 at 8:44 am

    James said...

    Yes. Just what I was hoping for.

  • 4 9-05-2011 at 8:56 am

    Liz said...


    Outstanding review, as always, Guy.

  • 5 9-05-2011 at 9:13 am

    JJ1 said...

    Guy, B+/3.5 out of 4 is obviously very, very good. I’m curious, trying to judge the tone of your review … is the film as you imagined it might be, better, or not quite as you’d hoped, and why?

  • 6 9-05-2011 at 9:17 am

    red_wine said...

    Including you, its rave after rave after rave for TTSS.

    What’s feeling on the Lido Guy, this is taking the gold?

  • 7 9-05-2011 at 9:29 am

    Andrej said...

    I super can’t wait for it. Glad to hear Tom Hardy’s being awesome here as well!

  • 8 9-05-2011 at 9:34 am

    Tisforthommy said...

    Without having seen the film, I already like the vampire comparison you make, Guy. Great review. Again. Sounds pretty much like what I expected and hoped for. Really looking forward to it.

  • 9 9-05-2011 at 9:36 am

    MovieFan said...

    Guy, is Oldman’s comparable to Gene Hackman’s brilliant work in The Conversation, a similarly subtle performance that was overlooked at Oscar time. I get that kind of vibe from Oldman’s performance in this movie, very Harry Caul like

  • 10 9-05-2011 at 9:36 am

    Drew said...

    I just gotta ask, Guy, how did you get to be so goddamn good at writing? Even if the movies bad, and I won’t agree with you half the time, I’ll still read whatever you’ve written.

  • 11 9-05-2011 at 9:54 am

    The Other James D. said...

    Love the review, and this only solidifies its place on my most anticipated list.

    And I’m hoping that if the similarly subtle Richard Jenkins achieved a nod, that Oldman, with a bit of a campaign and some industry support, will be able to score the same.

  • 12 9-05-2011 at 10:27 am

    /3rtfull said...

    “I just gotta ask, Guy, how did you get to be so goddamn good at writing?’

    Practice, practice, practice.

  • 13 9-05-2011 at 10:27 am

    AnnaZed said...

    Oh Guy, I am so so very excited by this. If Hurt gets to say “there are three of them and Alleline” I may stroke out before the proceedings get started.

    Now, Kathy Burke, she operates on a very high level, very high – certainly a peer of these famous scenery chewing men. Is there a chance of any Oscar love for her as there once was at Cannes?

    Also, [complete non non sequitur] but if they ever make a Roman Polanski bio pick then Simon McBurney must play him. He looks just like him.

  • 14 9-05-2011 at 11:00 am

    Ben M. said...

    Nice to hear, seems like this movie is getting a lot of praise at Venice. I wasn’t that impressed with Hardy in Inception (not that he was bad or anything, but I felt his role didn’t give him much to do) but thought he was really solid in Warrior so it would be good if he goes 2 for 2 in performances this year.

    Also, AnnaZed, they actually did make an indie biopic on Polanski a couple of years ago, I saw it cause it was on TV and I’ve always been interested in Polanski’s life story, but the movie is awful.

  • 15 9-05-2011 at 11:24 am

    Michael said...

    This review is making me do a happy dance! :^D + ;^P + :^) + :^O

    LOL – seriously though, my heart was pounding about how this film was going to pan out since I am obsessed with the original miniseries and was afraid that it was going to be a disaster, or worse, a dull mediocre waste of time. Instead it seems like it has turned out exactly as I had hoped and that makes me happy and excited to catch it in December.

    And I’m beginning to think that some of these films may be suffering from festival fatigue, just a little bit. I think that when this film is viewed on its own outside of the festival setting it may perhaps have a little bit more room to breathe and could get a second birth (similar to Inglourious Basterd’s famously mixed initial critical response at Cannes compared to its later August reception.) Not that this film in particular has been receiving middling reviews across the board or anything, but I’m just hoping that when it is out into the world that it will have a groundswell of popular and critical support that will push it to the forefront of awards recognition. This is the type of film that I wish was made more often, so if it does well, hopefully that will clue studios in that people want to see them.

  • 16 9-05-2011 at 12:12 pm

    americanrequeim said...

    after the first trailer i was sold, this seems like the only slam dunk out of both festivals so far, excited

  • 17 9-05-2011 at 12:53 pm

    Jake G.!!!! said...

    Do you ever give a four star review or do you think your to good of a critic???!

  • 18 9-05-2011 at 12:56 pm

    j said...

    I see Gary Oldman in a similar situation as his co-star 2 years ago. Colin Firth before 2009, and Gary Oldman now, career-wise wracked up a total of, like, one movie Bafta nom and an Emmy nom, but when Firth was nominated some people called him overdue…The reviews so far say that Oldman is strong but a nicely quiet presence, the way that Firth was lovely and subdued in a totally awesome way.

    Though Oldman doesn’t have an upcoming movie about British Royalty co-starring Oscar-y folk and directed by a Bafta/Globe/Emmy-nominated guy.

  • 19 9-05-2011 at 1:24 pm

    Liz said...

    Jake G.:

    You mean other than the four stars he gave to “Alps” not two days ago?

    Thanks for playing, though.

  • 20 9-05-2011 at 1:32 pm

    Arty said...

    Great news for Working Title. There really aren’t that many films with male leads and Oscar aspirations left to be seen, so at this stage I’d be very tempted to call Oldman a lock for the nomination.

  • 21 9-05-2011 at 2:20 pm

    Michael W. said...

    Guy@ (if you have the time :D )

    How big is David Dencik’s part in the film?

    He’s seen quite often in the trailer but is not mentioned by name in the credits of the trailer or on the poster. Is that because it’s a smaller part or simply because he’s not well known?

    Being from Denmark I’m quite interested to hear about it because he’s in my opinion one of our very best actors at the moment and he’s not only in TTSS, but also War Horse and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so he’s looking at a fantastic fall season.

  • 22 9-05-2011 at 2:41 pm

    ninja said...

    How long before Hardy get a nomination for something (this, Warrior, future movie)? He`s my new favorite.

  • 23 9-05-2011 at 2:42 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    Solid review, Guy. Sounds like a 4 star review to me ;)

  • 24 9-05-2011 at 2:43 pm

    Dana Jones said...

    @Ninja- me too, buddy, me too. I hope between this film and ‘Warrior’, he gets a nom.

  • 25 9-05-2011 at 2:52 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    JJ1: Very much as I hoped it would be. I only give out a handful of four-star reviews per year, after all.

    Red_Wine: The current Lido buzz is that Shame is in the lead. I think Tinker, Tailor might be a touch… conventional for the Lion?

    MovieFan: Very interesting comparison, and one that makes me want to rewatch The Conversation when I get home.

  • 26 9-05-2011 at 3:01 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Drew: That’s a very kind question, and obviously one that’s impossible for me to answer! But there’s truth to what /3rtfu11 says — ever since I was a kid, I wrote film reviews in a journal, but I think I’ve got substantially better since I started writing on a regular basis here. Anyway, I’ve still got a way to go.

    AnnaZed: Burke’s role is little more than a cameo, so I doubt she’ll get much awards attention, fab though she is.

    Jake G: Did you miss my review of Alps, or do you think you’re just too good a reader? Seriously, though, I think four star reviews should be rare, so as to distinguish the very good films from the ones that really hit you on a personal level.

    Michael W: It’s reasonably substantial — no smaller than, say, Firth’s role — and he’s very good. As is everyone here.

  • 27 9-05-2011 at 3:08 pm

    ePastorJames said...

    Re: Hardy, I think The Wettest County in the World might be his ticket in, especially being in a Weinstein feature and coupled with The Dark Knight Rises next year.

  • 28 9-05-2011 at 3:59 pm

    JJ1 said...

    Gotcha, Guy. I, myself, usually have only a couple of ‘4’ star movies each year, as well.

    I think my most ever was 4. Funny enough, one of those years was last year, for me.

  • 29 9-05-2011 at 5:40 pm

    m1 said...

    I rate on scales of 5 and 10. In 2009, I gave out 2 perfect scores. Last year, I gave out 13.

  • 30 9-05-2011 at 6:19 pm

    Brett said...

    Good review, Guy.


    Do you think Gary Oldman could not only get nominated by actually win the oscar after seeing this film?

    Along the same lines–do you think the film itself could not only get nominated by actually win the oscar for Best Picture after seeing this film?


  • 31 9-05-2011 at 6:42 pm

    Fei said...

    Before now (with the across-the-board raves), I was skeptical of TTSS’s Best Picture chances. Now I think that it’s almost as solid as any of the other top contenders. If there is a “British slot” this year as there usually is, then this fills it. Plus, if the ensemble is widely perceived to be as excellent as you say, then actors will be championing this movie, which is most important of all.

    Guy, I have high standards for what I consider to be good writing, and I’m impressed with your reviews. I understand the need to be humble, but I’ll join the chorus and state, without reservation, that you are among the best critics that I’ve read. I completely agree about having special standards for “four-star movies.” The only other four-star review of yours from this year that comes to mind is Drive.

  • 32 9-05-2011 at 9:40 pm

    Jake G.!!!! said...

    Exactly Guy! You give four star reviews to movies YOU think are “great”, but you never think or say in your reviews how the film will hit the audience or basic movie watchers standards. Distancing you from such a critic as Richard Roeper. Your standards might be a little to high, and I think your reviews are a little to harsh, its nothing to get defensive about! p.s. Who cares about Alps….No one will probably even see that movie! But Tinker, Tailor will probably appeal to the audience and critics making it a more deserving four star film than Alps.

  • 33 9-05-2011 at 9:54 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Not only did you fall off the Shortbus, but you seemed to have suffered brain damage after inhaling exhaust from its tailpipe. Holy shit.

    1) When a person reviews a film, they are reviewing how the film impacts them and how well crafted it was in its various facets. It’s not an IMDb score of the collective people.

    2) Being a more accessible film does not give it superiority over less audience friendly fare. Ratings films in that regard is degrading to the films themselves.

    3) Are you a troll? Is this all just sarcasm? I can’t see any other reason why you’d mention Richard Roeper as a valuable film critic.

  • 34 9-05-2011 at 9:54 pm

    red_wine said...

    Jake G.! now that’s a thoroughly rubbish comment.

    A review is just that – one person’s opinion. That is why we read Guy’s reviews, because we want to see his opinion. Roeper is a hack and does not have the personality of a garden gnome. I never truly get why he likes or dislikes some movies, he only says that he does, and never explains why in his reviews, with Guy you know what exactly he thinks about it (star rating notwithstanding).

    And there seems to be reverse snobbery against Alps. Apls is the second film from Dogtooth’s director which was a much heralded film all over the world, you will be surprised how many people care about it.

    I come here because this is one of the few outlets that cover foreign language titles and other obscure films in great detail, if I want to read about conventional regular films, there are outlets dime-a-dozen. So actually coverage of movies like Alps forms the major attraction for many people.

  • 35 9-05-2011 at 11:42 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Brett: No and no, I think. Too low-key.

    Fei: I’ve given a couple of others this year: We Need To Talk About Kevin, Sleeping Sickness and Senna. (Plus, I’ve seen one or two films I haven’t reviewed yet that merit the rating.) I generally end up with enough to make up most of my year-end Top 10.

    Jake G: There are two different types of critics: those who articulate their opinion in fairly personal terms, through which others can filter their own tastes and responses, and those who gauge how a film might play for a certain audience and effectively review it on their behalf. There’s skill in both disciplines, but I tend to fall into the former camp. I think it’s somewhat condescending to target reviews to “basic movie watchers’ standards” — part of a good critic’s responsibility is to open readers’ eyes to worthwhile films they might not otherwise consider.

    Anyway, it’s clear from both the review and the high star rating that I think Tinker, Tailor is an excellent film. No reader could fail to see that I am actively recommending it. You’re getting hung up on numbers when it’s the words that really count.

    Still, thanks for your thoughts.

  • 36 9-06-2011 at 5:10 pm

    Jake Garza said...

    @ Other James and Red Wine, Roeper is a great critic, if he wasn’t he wouldn’t be famous, and I like how he has videos of his reviews and he’s honest!
    @ Guy, I understand your rating these films with Oscar mentality which is okay because this is an Oscar site! I also think it would be cool if you made videos of your reviews!

  • 37 9-07-2011 at 12:45 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks, Jake — though I think you’re missing my point a bit. I’m certainly not rating these films with an Oscar mentality. If I were, I certainly wouldn’t be giving Alps four stars.

  • 38 9-07-2011 at 10:58 am

    James said...

    Cool new featurette. Nice to see these well spoken talented cast members give their interpretation of Smiley as opposed to just their own characters. Can’t wiat.

  • 39 9-07-2011 at 11:11 am

    AnnaZed said...

    James, thank you for that.

    Oscar watchers, beware of underestimating the American infatuation with all things English public school men centric of both adult American film-goers and Academy voters of a certain age (say 55 to 60) both male and female.

  • 40 10-14-2011 at 11:51 am

    WG said...

    “like the queasily orange graphic pattern that papers the Circus’s main conference room” – I believe that was the soundproofing foam.