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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
December 9, 2011 1:03 AM
20 Comments
  • |

When a film has so many attributes—including superior performances and a tangible sense of time, place, and atmosphere—it’s tempting to overlook its shortcomings. That wouldn’t be honest, but at least I can begin on a positive note. From the casting of Gary Oldman as veteran MI6 agent George Smiley to the depiction of life in the espionage community of the 1970s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy delivers the goods. Fans of spy novels in general, and John Le Carré in particular, should be eminently pleased. What’s more, admirers of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In will be happy to see that he and his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema have brought the same keen eye to this material that made their work on that vampire movie so striking.

But in their desire to depict the day-to-day doings of a top-level spy, Alfredson and company have forgotten to maintain the kind of energy that’s vital to a film as densely-plotted as this. There’s nothing wrong with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that a well-placed shot of adrenaline couldn’t fix.

The story is perfectly set up: after a botched mission, the head of MI6, known as Control, is booted out of the agency along with his number-one man, Smiley. Soon after the shakeup, a government official approaches Smiley to take on a uniquely challenging assignment: to find a mole who has worked his way to the highest echelon of the service. Who can it be?

Having portrayed so many flamboyant, far-out characters over the years, Oldman might seem an unusual choice for Smiley, but as usual he has transformed himself completely, and his stillness speaks volumes. This is a perfectly-measured performance. (It may not erase many people’s memories of Alec Guinness in the role, but that’s unavoidable.)  He is surrounded by an exceptional and well-chosen ensemble led by John Hurt, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor have managed to incorporate a daunting amount of detail into their screenplay…but if your concentration wanes, even for a moment, you may lose your way. The sheer accumulation of incidents makes the film’s occasional lethargy all the more noticeable. But the essence of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is found in the big picture, not the specifics. As director Alfredson says in a published note, “I think we’ve made a film about loyalty and ideals, values that are extremely relevant—perhaps mostly because they are so rare these days?”

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20 Comments

  • DuncanDT | January 25, 2012 12:06 PMReply

    I watched this film having not read the book, and I loved it. I agree with Joseph, it is so rare that a film comes out that requires the watcher to think, rather than just vegetate in front of the screen, that when one does come along people accuse it of being overly complex and boring. There are no car chases, the violence is minimal as is the sex, my god how can it be worth watching? If you cannot concentrate for an entire film then watch Ironman, or Bridesmaids (both excellent films), but if you want to be made to think, watch a film like this one.

    Oldman is superb, and the supporting cast is equally impressive. Why would Firth want a film with so little screen time? Because he can recognise a bit of class when he sees it, and is willing to sacrifice any professional pride ("I need the lead role to do a film") to be involved in such a great piece of work.

    The trouble is that we see a Spy film and we think Bond and Bourne. This is not a Spy film, it is a film about Spies. There is a subtle difference.

  • Michael McVay | January 18, 2012 11:38 PMReply

    This is one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time. (Beginners is another one.) I am befuddled by the glowing reviews these movies have received. Leonard Maltin's so-so review was entirely too kind. How could Tinker etc. receive 11 Bafta nominations? I had no connection with any of the characters. It was like watching strangers through a window. I couldn't keep all of their names straight because we never really get to know them. Great acting? Give me a break. In this movie, Smiley is the most boring spy I have ever seen. We watch him swim laps back and forth, walk to and fro down random streets, sit in a chair in the dark and stare expressionless at nothing. The plot itself is impossible to follow, and deadly dull. You truly won't care who the mole is. The movie seems to have been edited by a gang of monkeys with scissors, confusedly jumping back and forth in time, adding to the confusion. And the pace is so S-L-O-W. Several people left the theater early, while others snored in their seats. A few questions: 1) Who is Karla? I thought throughout the entire movie Karla was a woman. 2) How did the American spy return from Europe after being captured and interrogated? 3) What did the Russian woman have to do with anything? 4) What was the mission of the spies in Europe to begin with? If we don't know, then why should we care? 5) What does the boy in glasses have to do with anything? 6) Why would Colin Firth desire a role with so little screen time? If the movie were good, I would gladly watch it again to try to figure things out. This movie, though, isn't worth it.

  • Albert | January 25, 2012 5:31 PM

    Not only did the film receive 11 BAFTA nominations, it also received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay!

  • Albert Sanchez Moreno | January 12, 2012 4:26 PMReply

    The film is an incoherent mess, far from the way Leonard Maltin described it. Yes, it has magnificent acting and great atmosphere, but I have seldom seen a more confusing motion picture. There are scenes which seem to fulfill no purpose whatsoever, we are expected to retain the names of many characters although their names are barely mentioned, and the flashbacks are so badly done that often the viewer doesn't realize they are watching a flashback - nothing to orient the viewer as to time and place. We see a character sitting down and talking, then all of a sudden the film seems to have jumped to another scene since the character is standing up and dressed differently. Motives are so glossed over we're never sure what they are. A more incompetently adapted novel would be hard to find. All of the other John Le Carré films that I have seen are easier to follow than this one.

  • Brett | December 31, 2011 3:05 AMReply

    This is not necessarily a negative review. It's inconclusive. I'll guess we're going have to wait for the 2013 Movie Guide to find out just where Mr. Maltin stands on this film.

  • Patrick M. Gouin | December 28, 2011 11:35 AMReply

    We are in the middle of the 60’s cold war. It’s espionage in the raw at its most frugal, stripped of 007’s glamour, inhabits off stage from daily life. An alternative title could be: A spy, just another civil servant.

  • Jeffrey | December 25, 2011 1:21 AMReply

    The notion that movies are uniformly inferior and that everything from previous decades was better is a simplistic and fallacious prejudice that, I take it, you never check at the door.

  • Vishal | December 24, 2011 12:19 PMReply

    I am a big fan of John Le Carre.. Really like the 2001 Brosnan starer "The Tailor of Panama"..
    You can share your views with me @ http://bestspymovies.blogspot.com/

  • Bev | December 14, 2011 11:45 PMReply

    This review is very accurate. They drained all the suspense out of the movies. Movies in general are going down hill. There are still a couple of good ones though @ http://b4releasemovies.com

  • Joseph McNulty | December 12, 2011 8:59 PMReply

    The comments make me even more convinced that movies are in a fallen state. Name a movie that it worthy of an adult's time? Since I am over than 25, I guess that I am too ancient to matter. Consider todays movies: gross-out juvenile "comedies" like "The Hang-Over" or "Bridesmaids"; pointless "romantic comedies" like "New Year's Eve" (Will they have sex? Will they get back together?) Movies based on toys, like the witless "Transformers" movies? Movies based on amusement park rides, like "Pirates" franchise? Movies based on comic book characters, like "Ironman" or "Batman"? No wonder you think "Tinker, Tailor" was slow and "dull." Your capacity for subtlety is probably attenuated by all the car chases and explosions. Would the moviemakers of the Seventies or even the Eighties be embarassed by today's movies? Could a movie like "The Godfather" even get made today? Perhaps you thought the wedding scene was slow and "dull"? After all, there were no car chases.

  • nick name | December 12, 2011 12:26 PMReply

    Maybe I'm not as sharp as I used to be, but I found TTSS slow and ponderous. I couldn't work up interest in any of the characters, and even though the acting was excellent, they were uniformly dull and charmless. Not a speck of tension or suspense to be found. The ending was sudden and confusing, and it felt like something important had been left on the cutting room floor.

  • Sketchbook | December 11, 2011 11:47 PMReply

    This review gets it right: first spy movie I've ever seen that is drained of all suspense!
    The dir flubs any excitement over the "botched" mission, becos we know in advance.
    He also flubs the unmasking of the mole; there's no drama, no nothing. And the fadeout
    finale is hackneyed. The music is pretty dreary and why a French ditty ("Le Mer") for
    the end credits?

  • Jeffrey | December 11, 2011 9:20 PMReply

    The "fallen nature of today's films". When I hear phrases like these, I wonder if they're coming from old people or people who insist on growing old before their time. Either way, it doesn't matter much because as a young person I have high hopes for the future of film. Last year was a solid year for cinema and this year has been just as good.

  • Joseph McNulty | December 11, 2011 8:47 PMReply

    I wonder if, given the fallen nature of today's films, we have reached the point where no only can no director tell a complex, layered story, no viewer can follow one. I read "Tinker, Tailor" in the Seventies and remember only that (1) it was the only spy novel that I have ever read that reaches the status of "literature" (the "James Bond" novels are childish piffle in comparison) and (2) Le Carre's cynicism is so great that it is really hard to develop a "rooting interest" for anyone. If both sides are so dishonorable, what difference does it makes who wins? Except that during the Cold War, letting Karla (the Communist spymaster) win had disastrous practical consequences. I find it hard to imagine how anyone could reduce the complexity of "Tinker, Tailor" -- so compelling in print -- to a movie that anyone would want to see. Imagine what today's 15-year-old videogamer -- today's typical moviegoer -- will make of Cold War conflicts that occurred before he was born and Karla, sitting like a spider at the center of his many webs, throwing out as many misleading clues as actual ones.

  • mike schlesinger | December 11, 2011 5:24 PMReply

    I had no problem with the pace; it felt right and I was not bored in the slightest. However, I WAS frequently flummoxed by the jumping around in time; non-linear structure can be deadly when the overall time period is so compressed. A second viewing seems almost mandatory.

  • Matthew | December 9, 2011 8:32 PMReply

    Judging by your criticisms of this film, it seems unlikely that you've watched the made-for-British television adaption starring Alec Guinness, Mr Maltin. There isn't much out there that is so slowly-paced and demanding of the viewer's scrutiny. Energetic it is not, and neither are LeCarre's books, for the most part. Involving, and highly intelligent maybe, but there is not much octane within their pages.

  • Alec | December 9, 2011 6:33 PMReply

    Some of the reviews of this film have just been depressing. We read endlessly from film critics about how today's film are too throwaway, too action-based, Michael Bay, etc. Then comes along a film that has a proven story superbly retold, that has intelligence, style and an excellent cast. And guess what, we're told its too slow, doesn't getting going soon enough, etc. The last thing this film lacks is energy. Sometimes a review just says much more about the reviewer than the film...

  • margle | December 12, 2011 12:09 AM

    Alec, agree with you totally! I think Maltin has been seeing too many ADD movies. This is a wonderfully suspenseful paced film that follows both the novel and the mini-series in style. Maybe some will feel they have to see it twice. I probably will. I watched Inception four times ....

  • gerry | December 9, 2011 9:39 PM

    Maltin is right on target. Oldman is amazing but the film plods along and is near impossible to follow even if you are paying attention. The original was a TV mini series where is took its time over weeks and helped reinforce the complex plot lines.

  • Lorna Singh | December 9, 2011 4:01 PMReply

    Wow,what a cast.As a huge fan of John Le Carre,I am looking forward to seeing this film.

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