A retired British intelligence officer is asked to find the mole in his former department in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a movie chock-filled with excellent British actors.
After an operation to recruit a Soviet spy goes wrong in 1970s Hungary, the head of MI6, who is known as Control (John Hurt), is forced out of the service and with him into earlier-than-desired retirement goes George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a gray man not at all suited to not having work. Soon after leaving the Circus, as they call MI6, Control dies. The British government is faced with mounting expenses on an operation code-named Witchcraft, in which new MI6 head Percy Alleline (Tobey Jones) is placing a lot of faith. The organization’s overseers don’t feel good about spending that much money on an operation when doubts still exist about why, exactly, the Hungary situation went wrong. Control’s suspicion, which he died before he could prove, was that there was a very highly placed mole at MI6, one of, in fact, five men — Alleline, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) and Smiley himself. Control had sent agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary in pursuit of the identity of the mole but he wound up shot (and many British assets ended up dead).
Now, Smiley is tasked with following through on Control’s hunch and looking for the spy — quietly and from outside the organization. Helping him on the inside is Peter Gilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch, whose most excellent full name, according to IMDB, is Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch; he played Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s equally excellent miniseries, which IMDB indicates has new episodes coming this year — and now you are caught up on your Cumberbatch news). Also in the mix is Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a young agent whom MI6 believes has been turned but who has his own motivations for finding the mole.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is therefore the tale of an investigation — Smiley’s investigation into the agency — as well as the tale of the men, and all their imperfections, who inhabit it. Saying little is the unifying personality trait of all of these men, and in their silence, their heavy looks and almost imperceptible facial expressions seem to speak volumes about who they are. It is several scenes into the movie, I think, before Oldman says a word (but in his silence has already conveyed a considerable amount about his character) and the one time he raises his voice it’s memorable because it is the one time. These are really top-notch performances — they are the personification of the word “nuance” without becoming a parody. This is a meticulously well-crafted movie.
And it totally put me to sleep.
I don’t mean that figuratively. I don’t mean “I was so bored” or “I lost interest.” I mean that at least twice during the movie’s first 40 or so minutes, I found myself waking up. I’m pretty sure I slept a total of 20 minutes in there somewhere and in addition I did a fair amount of “resting my eyes.” So I did the thing that keeps me from falling asleep at even the most godawful, plot-free movies; I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy again. I made a point of going in bright-eyed and with sugary snacks and cold water in hand. Determined not to have to see this movie a third time, I didn’t fall asleep, didn’t even allow myself a prolonged blink the second time around, but I did come to the conclusion that falling asleep the first time wasn’t entirely my fault. When this movie comes out on DVD, I strongly recommend keeping a copy in your medicine cabinet but making a point not to operate heavy machinery after viewing until you know how it will affect you. Something in how this movie was translated from the John le Carré book seems to have taken what I imagine in the book is rich texture and turned it into a kind of storytelling fog.
Even thinking back on the movie, right now, makes me want to rest my head on my keyboard for a few minutes.
I’m not sure why this particular mix of really strong elements results in this sleepy effect. I’m not arguing that this movie should lose the character development it has (it’s impressive how it can give us bits of the personalities of so many of these men) nor do I think it needs to be Mission: Impossibled-up with explosions and quips. I really did enjoy the performances and the story and I even liked the mood-setting cigarette-smoke haze that everything is shot through. The grayness that descends on everything adds to the shadowy nature of the men’s lives. In my Cumberbatch-assisted investigation of where this movie stumbles, I think I would point the finger at the pacing. Particularly in the movie’s first half, there is a pokiness to the collection of flashbacks and conversations that set up the story. It needs a jolt of energy to move things along and really get this Cold War story moving.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a beach-read quality to the story to match its well-done performances. Enjoy it — just make a point of bringing a hot coffee with an extra shot of espresso. B-
Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language. Directed by Tomas Alfredson with a screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (from a novel by John le Carré), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is two hours and seven minutes long and is distributed by Focus Features.