"Cerebral." That's the first word that comes to mind in describing Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. And that was the last word echoing in my brain as I left the theater. The problem with cerebral art on film as opposed to in print is that it's harder to convey the feeling of something going on in someone's head when nothing is happening onscreen. A book can go into detail about what someone is feeling and/or thinking, but long takes of peoples' expressions does not make mind readers out of an audience. With little dialogue, this is a movie that benefits those who have read the book.
Based on John LeCarré's classic 1974 novel, the film version leaves something to be desired. The actors are all superlative, especially Gary Oldman (getting his due by finally carrying a movie with this much weight), but when very little transpires onscreen, it's very hard to decipher what the hell is motivating any of these spies. I know they're supposed to be secretive, but this is overkill. With a very simple plot that's not built out of your basic twisty-turny super espionage, it's all about the inner workings of spies' brains. Luckily, I was fortunate to see most of the BBC miniseries staring Alec Guinness that delved a little deeper over time to tell the story in a relaxed, coherent manner and gave me a chance to soak in all the characters a little better. The 2011 version crams a lot of mental chess and secretive inner turmoil into the space of two hours, and the result is like watching paint dry.
TTSS is all about a spy who comes in from the cold to expose a mole among his peers. George Smiley (Oldman) has been retired from British intelligence for about a year when he is asked to find out which one of the men in the senior ranks of his old agency, referred to as "The Circus," is a Russian spy. Without official access to any of the files or letting on that anyone is under suspicion and with only a few old friends, Smiley must unearth the spy with his own powers of deduction. You know, like, spy stuff.
But the coolest thing about movie is the way it looks. This is the English-language debut of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who directed 2008's bleak anti-Twilight vampire movie, Let the Right One In. His visual style creeps into everything. With freezing sweeps of cold grim bleakness, Alfredson impeccably captures the Cold War era, the intrigue of international espionage and the repercussions of betrayal.
Tinker also boasts a British cast that is without a doubt the most impressive thespian ensemble of any movie this year. Tom Hardy (quickly becoming one of my favorite actors) fills in the most animated character and the dependable Marc Strong has a central reoccurring role that will keep you guessing. Above all, though, Gary Oldman is mesmerizing. What he does with his voice, delivery and cold stare is a marvel to behold. The rest (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth) just sort of sit and stew as the chess pieces they've become neutralized into in this cat-and-mouse game. These spies are not cut from the dashing James Bond cloth. Rather, they're geeky, intellectual, stiff-upper-lip Brit operatives who fly under the radar.
In the end, you might be guessing as to why they went to all this trouble to come to such an obvious conclusion, but in the myriad of weird mind games is where the heart and mind of this movie lies. Their world is a suspenseful place of nerdy yet dangerous loners. It's all about the secrecy... perhaps too much so. Deliberate and slow paced, Tinker delivers spies with existential angst. I left this movie thinking it was boring, but as I look back on how it was made, what happened and how intriguing it all was, I think it might be better than I initially gave it credit for. I just might have to see it again. Damn it.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Starring Gary Oldman, John Hurt,
Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds,
Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
Directed by Tomas Alfredson