Mr. Smiley (Gary Oldman) is like a master of ceremonies to his cluster of secret agents, a group of middle-aged, worn out British spies who meet in secret locations and double and triple-cross one another at any given moment. Once its discovered there’s a mole in his midst, Smiley digs deeper and keeps his men under close surveillance. The question isn’t merely who but why and we too take part in the cloak and dagger work, watching a smooth ladie’s man (Colin Firth), an on-edge school teacher (Mark Strong), a love struck field agent (Tom Hardy) and a cantankerous veteran (John Hurt) at work. The four-word title is the codename of each of the most likely four suspects, some of whom won’t be alive by the final reveal.
The first thing my senior graduating class did on our last day of school at Ka‘ahumanu Hou high school was run over to the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center to see Mission: Impossible. Following the screening, my classmates and I collectively discovered that we really didn’t understand the movie, at all. Only after four additional viewings, did I fully get the story and I now love the film.
I doubt I will ever say the same for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is the most challenging film of the year. The story is remarkably convoluted and confusing but, even if I could fully decipher it, the film left me cold. I admired the performances and the filmmaking but I never cared about any of these characters, mole or not.
Tomas Alfredson previously directed the fantastic Let the Right One In, the Swedish vampire thriller that is among the best of its genre. Here, he makes an equally quiet, stylish film, though the pacing will make even the most patient movie goers restless. I’d call the film slow, but that would indicate movement of some sort.
The first 20 minutes have so many extended pauses and scenes of men just sitting, not doing anything, you wonder if this was meant to create mood or incite audience impatience. The snail pacing is sometimes interrupted by jolts of sex or gory violence but mostly scenes of men talking about events that don’t register, since the film has been edited in a way to prevent the narrative from connecting. There are flashbacks within flashbacks, as well as odd scenes like a CGI owl flying into a classroom that Strong smashes to pieces.
Oldman’s performance has been getting early acclaim as his finest; no question, he’s excellent in the role and has an extended monologue (with a cockeyed camera thrust in his face) that is one of the film’s most arresting moments. Yet, for the actor who once played Sid Vicious, Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald and Beethoven, this is another pitch-perfect tour de force but hardly the pinnacle of his abilities. Of the large supporting cast, Hurt makes the most vivid impression.
Fans of the book will be the most ready to embrace such a stuffy, “Masterpiece Theater”-ready film. The novel was written by John Le Carre, whose books I’ve loved, particularly Absolute Friends. His The Russia House was made into a nail biting, gorgeously produced thriller starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer in two of their best performances.
That 1990 film has no car chases, shoot outs or conventional action scenes but knew how to portray Le Carre’s intellectual take on the spy genre. Here, you have a film with a lot to admire but little to connect to. The big reveal at the end will leave you shrugging and going “oh, well.”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Rated R/127 Min.