Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is both the tirelessly faithful adaptation of the John le Carré novel and the next film by Tomas Alfredson, who had critic’s falling over themselves to come up with new superlatives to describe the admittedly somewhat messy Let The Right One In. Boasting a fantastic cast and much critical kudos, does Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy see the mainstream arrival of a new talent?
The plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is as convoluted as you would expect of any faithful adaptation of such a book. Put simply, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) plays an espionage agent who is brought back from a forced retirement in order to find a mole in the British Intelligence network. His suspects are represented by the four figures of the title and are played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds and David Dencik. Helping him is Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and Trigger from “Only Fools and Horses” Roger Lloyd-Pack.
The film is entirely plot-driven and convoluted in the style of modern-day serious thrillers, which basically means withholding key pieces of information. For example, towards the end, one character is to be traded for someone that the Soviets have imprisoned. This is never said, but the fact that it has been mentioned before in a different context is deemed enough of a clue. Ultimately, it is a film that makes you think it is more intelligent than it actually is. However, it is a fairly straightforward film that is only confusing when it tries very hard to be. A case in point, the introduction of Tom Hardy’s character, which is not referred to before and not explained until long after it occurs.
Another hallmark of the ‘serious modern thriller’ is a period detail. The film is set in 1973 and a lot of the running time is spent on showing the production design. The convincing costumes and the carefully placed period props get more of a focus than the characters. This is the film’s major stumbling block. Being a faithful adaptation, it deals with too much information, becoming almost pedantic in the amount of detail it tries to bring across, and being a period film, it focuses too much on creating a realistic 1970s England. So much so that the characters becomes ciphers, merely plot points and catalysts to move things forward. We never see their motivations, their weaknesses or their strengths. They are all just very serious people doing very serious things, but with no soul. Few of the actors get a chance to shine, raising the question of why they bothered signing up for such a small role. Like Tom Hollander’s character in In The Loop, they are merely ‘meat in the room’ for much of the running time.
Tomas Alfredson’s directorial preoccupation seems to be based on bringing arthouse techniques to genre filmmaking. His Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, like his Let The Right One In, is awash with formalist framings and very deliberate pacing. The final confrontation between Smiley and the culprit is left largely unseen and characters are constantly framed alongside symmetrical objects. While this style is commendable, especially now with cinemas crowded with over-edited and special effects laden bores such as Transformers, it doesn’t work in films that should be a bit more fun and a bit more exciting. Alfredson clearly thinks that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a serious meditation on the mores of the 1970s and the paranoia and cruelty of the Cold War, but the film is rarely successful from this perspective. Indeed, the film’s final shot suggests a film that is more ironic and cynical than its stony seriousness and pretentious trappings would suggest. Mostly it is a rather trashy story that is too slow and too stretched to be much good.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is intended to be serious and profound, but it merely achieves the level of rainy Sunday afternoon entertainment. It is a misfire, but it is a reasonably diverting and somewhat pretty misfire.