Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Mark Strong
Review: 3 stars (of five)
John Le Carre’s classic of Cold War espionage is condensed into a two-hour film that suffers from the compression and the tight-lipped, underplayed nature of its characters—both of which make the plot a bit hard to follow. Listening to the audience filter out of my screening, it was clear that a lot of people neither connected with the story nor understood it beyond the broad strokes of “Gary Oldman’s looking for a double agent.”
It’s a hard film to connect with. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley is an absolute cipher, never revealing what he’s thinking when he speaks, and never speaking if silence will suffice. The film leaves you to figure out things on your own, such as what these people’s jobs are. That Smiley is deputy chief of service at the start of the film was never mentioned, as far as I could detect, nor were characters defined as, say, “Director of Operations” or “assassin” (“scalphunter,” in Le Carre parlance, “sandbagger” or “double-o” in others). It’s a lot to figure out, and a lot to expect of the audience. This, and the lack of satisfying, easily digested action, are going to be what hurt the film most with audiences.
Regardless, it’s a good film, well-made. The acting is superb, and Alfredson’s direction is sharp, but because the events mostly boil down to a bunch of middle-aged white men darting suspicious glances at each other when they’re not flat-out glaring, it’s easy to be underwhelmed. While one follows the overall plot, it’s clear that some nuances are being missed, and you have to expect that far more are left behind in the original novel (which the film makes me eager to reread). It’s a film for people with an interest in this sort of story, and perhaps a bit familiar with the context.
For me, the film failed to get at one of the key emotional cores of Le Carre’s novels—the isolating paranoia and mistrust of the espionage world, and the sense that, in the end, you and your opponents are more alike than your avowed ideologies are different. (How strongly this played into the novel I’ve forgotten, having read the brilliant The Spy Who Came In From The Cold much more recently.)
Leaving the screening, we received a bit of a giveaway—a promotional poster that diagrammed who was whom in the film and explained basic spy jargon and SIS workings that had shot right past all but the most espionage-steeped viewer. Not a lot of films feel the need to hand out a scorecard. (The Harry bloody Potter films could’ve used one, except that everyone on the planet but me has memorized that storyline like fantasy baseball geeks memorize batting averages and RBIs.) The fact that the people promoting this film felt the need probably points to a problem that a scorecard ain’t gonna fix—especially one you receive after the movie.