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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Oldman, Look At My Spies. . ."
5 stars

When one thinks about how the world of espionage is depicted in popular fiction, the mind inevitably drifts to the over-the-top adventures of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt--two-fisted guys who become involved in wild international adventures involving some combination of intense action, elaborate gadgetry, gorgeous women and/or megalomaniacal villains with ridiculously complicated plots to either take over the world, extort it for zillions or destroy it outright. In real life, however, espionage is a far more mundane business and those who partake in it are less likely to be wearing immaculately pressed tuxedos while sipping martinis and trading bon mots with questionably-named femme fatales than they are to be found sitting in shabby rooms poring over mountains of seemingly indecipherable material or figuring out ways to gain information that may or may not be of any use by whatever means necessary, be they noble or shabby. Of course, from a commercial standpoint, the realistic approach is far less viable than the more cartoony one but one person who has mined it quite successfully over the years has been British novelist John le Carre, who has been cranking out realistic and intelligently written espionage novels for 50 years now and the fact that he still commands a large a loyal audience to this day is a brief and continued sign of hope that popular fiction has not completely gone to the dogs in recent years.

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to bring le Carre's fiction to the big screen with wildly varying results. There have been some, such as "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," "The Tailor of Panama" and "The Constant Gardener," that have done a reasonably good job of transposing the material into cinematic terms without losing too much of the material in the process while others, including the largely forgotten likes of "The Deadly Affair," "The Looking Glass War" and the dreadful "The Little Drummer Girl," that made such utter hash of his words that even those who had actually read the stories had virtually no idea what was going on at any given time. Of all the adaptations of his work, the one that is generally regarded as the best is the six-part version of his 1974 novel "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" that was produced for British television in 1979. Of course, this particular item had two distinct advantages over its fellow adaptations in that the extended running time allowed the filmmakers to avoid the problem of trying to reduce le Carre's narrative into a two-hour time span and it featured a lead performance by Sir Alec Guinness that was deemed by many to be one of the high points of a career that had no shortage of such things.

Considering how highly that earlier version continues to be even to this day, the very notion of trying to mount another adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," especially one with a significantly reduced amount of screen time to tell the story and with the long shadow of Guinness' performance threatening to cast itself over whomever would get the gig of following in his footsteps, would seem at best to be incredibly foolhardy. And yet, some brave fools have endeavored to do just that and the result is a version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" that is lean, mean and surprisingly efficient in the way that it has boiled le Carre's story to its basics without making a mess out it and which features a lead performance by Gary Oldman that not only deserves comparison with with what Guinness did years ago but which is also one of the highlights of his own illustrious filmography.

The film starts off in 1973, in the midst of the Cold War, with Control (John Hurt), the head of England's intelligence service, MI6, sending top agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) off to Budapest to convince a general in the Hungarian army to defect. The general is an especially valuable prize there is a mole in the highest echelon of MI6 who is sending key information back to the Soviets and that the general knows their identity. Control has narrowed the possibilities to one of five high-ranking men--Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and his own right-hand man, George Smiley (Oldman). Unfortunately, the mission goes horribly, violently wrong and as a result, Control is fired and Smiley decides to leave the agency as well. As the result of this shake-up, Percy becomes the new chief, Bill becomes his deputy and the other two continue to serve as their close allies. This new status for the quartet is largely the result of their mysterious ability to produce seemingly solid Soviet intelligence when needed--information that both Control and Smiley have long had suspicions about.

A year or so later, the undersecretary (Simon McBurney) pays Smiley a visit and asks him to come out of retirement. It seems that Control, who has subsequently passed away from a heart attack, may have been correct about his suspicions after all, now that another agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), has also come forward with information about a high-ranking mole that corroborates Control's accusations. Now the government wants Smiley to investigate Tarr's claims and use his information to try to figure out which one of the other four is the mole.Needing an inside man to quietly gather information, Smiley recruits young agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to infiltrate MI6 headquarters in order to gather key documents so that he can begin the long process of discovering which one of his once-trusted colleagues has decided to betray both his co-workers and his country.

This is maddeningly complex material--believe me when I tell you that I have only scratched the surface of what goes one--and handled incorrectly, the whole thing could simply collapse into one giant glob of incomprehensible exposition that would almost require theaters to issue long and detailed flow charts to audience members to help them keep track of who is doing what to whom and whatever. Happily, the screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor does a marvelous job of streamlining the material in such a way that the important story details ring through in a clear and concise manner without overly simplifying things and ruining the complexity in the bargain. Perhaps the one key difference between the book and the film is the addition here of several flashbacks to a Christmas party that were not in the book but which do such an effective job of helping to underline the story's underlying theme of betrayal that most newcomers would be hard-pressed to guess that it wasn't a part of the original story. For his part, director Tomas Alfredson, whose previous film was the extraordinary Swedish vampiric coming-of-age tale "Let the Right One In," finds an intriguing approach to the material that presents everything in a slightly askew manner that adds a certain degree of tension to the proceedings--instead of the lush visuals that one normally associates with the spy genre, he and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema give the film a grey, gloomy look that will remind viewers more of the opening factory scenes in "Joe vs. the Volcano" than anything else. The score by Alberto Iglesias also does a marvelous job of getting under the skin without making too much of a fuss about it along the way.

From an acting standpoint, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is kind of like an adult "Harry Potter" movie in the way that it has managed to recruit so many strong British actors to help tell its tale. Chief among them, of course, is Gary Oldman, a wonderful actor whose admitted tendency towards flamboyance in his performances would seem to make him an odd choice for the role. After all, how could the guy who played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, the looney villains in "Leon" and "The Fifth Element" and whatever the hell he was supposed to be in "Red Riding Hood" possibly pull off the part of George Smiley, a man who is pretty much defined by his quiet restraint? Beautifully, as it turns out, because Oldman delivers a quietly mesmerizing turn that sees him disappear so completely into Smiley's unassuming character that some viewers may actually fail to recognize that it is him in the role for a while--if this isn't the single best performance of his career to date, it is certainly among them. Oldman is supported by an enormous supporting cast ranging from canny vets like Colin Firth, John Hurt and Toby Jones to up-and-comers like Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch and each one of them deliver strong performances as well. Admittedly the world of this film is basically a man's one but even with that, the film still manages to include brief-but-vivd turns by Svetlana Khodchenkova as the wife of a Russian spy who has an ill-fated affair with Tarr and Kathy Burke as a former MI6 worker who may have fired for knowing too much about what is going on around her.

Look, if you are in the mood for nothing more than a standard-issue espionage thriller with all the explosive bells and whistles, go see "Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol," a film that offers up the usual bag of goods in a fairly thrilling manner. However, if you are looking for something that is just as stimulating and exciting on an intellectual level, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is the one for you. This is a smart and ruthlessly efficient drama that is complex without being convoluted and refreshingly adult in its approach to boot. In fact, if I had to lodge any sort of complaint with the film, it is that there are times when I wish that the brisk 127-minute running time might have been extended a tad so that the story would have a little more time to breathe and the information sink in--although never confusing, there are a couple of points where newcomers may feel slightly overwhelmed with all the information they are receiving. Think about that--at a time whe even the most seemingly simple stories are bloated beyond reason, when was the last time that you can remember seeing a movie that you wished had gone on for a little while longer?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22563&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/15/11 22:50:56
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User Comments

1/16/16 David H. Well-acted, adult and very suspenseful 5 stars
6/06/14 The king slow as hell. Yawn. 1 stars
10/24/12 Ed Totleben Jr Good flick. Oldman is great. 3 stars
4/04/12 Craig N Slow, confusing, no tension, who cares who did it 1 stars
4/01/12 Big al Does not get better than this 5 stars
3/23/12 Monday Morning Needlessly opaque, humorless, confusing and without any redeeming characteristics. 2 stars
3/23/12 Les S. Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch... nuff said :D 4 stars
1/25/12 Devin Sabas a fun complicated movie. but if you hang with it it pays off big 4 stars
1/22/12 Alex Intelligent, well-paced, grown-up film with great actors. 4 stars
1/17/12 KingNeutron This movie was slow and incredibly hard to follow - disappointed. Wanted my $ back! 2 stars
1/15/12 The Big D No match for the original; Smelly Lonely on Callan could outsmart Oldman's Smiley! 2 stars
1/15/12 John I had no clue what was happening in this dreary film 1 stars
1/12/12 Donald Hallett great movie well worth a look 5 stars
12/20/11 Stacie Clark Different, unusual 4 stars
12/16/11 Andy It was a well made spy film but just a little boring for my taste 3 stars
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  09-Dec-2011 (R)
  DVD: 20-Mar-2012


  DVD: 20-Mar-2012

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