Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Review (R)

WARNING: SLIGHT SPOILERS… YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

London. John Hurt says something cryptic to Mark Strong. Men walking. A file being passed. A door being opened. Mark strong drinking tea or something out of the tiniest cup I’ve ever seen. A waiter sweating. Mark strong waiting with foreign guy. Woman nursing baby. Kid in window. Mark Strong looking at old lady in window two stories up. Mark Strong leaving. Waiter shoots lady with baby. Mark Strong waiting. Waiter shoots Mark Strong. A group of great British actors sitting around a table. John Hurt says “Smiley’s going WITH me”. Oldman looking contradictory. Hurt and Oldman looking at one another outside. A car. Men walking. Gary Oldman swimming. John Hurt croaked. Oldman smoking. Jets flying.Two men talking. A closeup of a letter. Oldman staring at a tiny  abstract painting in the dark.

Is anyone still reading? Sorry. That’s just the way the first five minutes of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” went. Quick cut after quick cut after quick cut. I got antsy wondering if they were going to do that the entire film. They didn’t, but there was still a heavy dose of editing. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, though. I liked it. Nay… I say thee NAY! I damn well loved this movie. Once they started ‘splainin’ (after the titles rolled) it got better and better.

The film is dizzying in the way the story unfolds. It jumps forward in time then back to the past. It cuts scenes in half leaving the viewer to think one thing and then returns to show the entire sequences that make you look at them in a different light. Information is peeled away.  The film centers around the high stakes world of international intelligence and protects its secrets with the same regard as the spies do.

After the opening machine gun spray of seemingly random clips, we learn that John Hurt  plays Control, the top dog of British Intelligence (nicknamed The Circus). The mission involving Mark Strong is put into motion by Hurt’s character in a desperate attempt to learn  the identity of a ‘mole’ who has supposedly been entrenched in Control’s small group of top agents. The mission fails miserably and Control is forced into retirement in shame. His right hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought down with him. A short time later Control dies.

One of Control’s underlings Alleline (Tobey Jones) takes over  as the ringleader of The Circus and the remaining staff of top agents consisting of  Esterhase (David Dencik), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and Bland (the underrated Ciaran Hinds). They almost immediately re-establish ties (and exchanges) with American intelligence using high level Russian information that these agents have obtained through espionage (and continue to do so).

Meanwhile, the ‘Under-Secretary’ (I believe he was called and played by another underrated actor, Simon McBurney) named Oliver Lacon approaches Smiley to investigate the mole (a double agent) that Control was trying to find. It had been brought to the attention of Lacon by one of their agents… (complicated ain’t it?)… named Ricky Tarr (played by rising star Tom Hardy).

Tarr also has something of a personal stake in the matter. When Smiley begins to investigate the matters (paying a visit to Control’s home), he finds that Control not only suspected  all of the current inner circle at The Circus (illustrated by the various players as various chess pieces) , but Smiley, also, which quietly unnerves him. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the twists and turns.

The cast is ridiculously good. This is reminiscent of the last few Harry Potter films that seemed to feature just about every great British actor that lives. This also had a collection of the finest British actors, only they’re not wasted here. Is this Oldman’s finest hour? I don’t know, but he really is amazing in this. Everyone in this film is at the top of their game.  I’m sure he’ll win some awards for this. There are a number of important roles, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one of the supporting actors aren’t nominated for awards. Mark Strong and Tom Hardy are obvious choices, playing field agents with maybe more to do than some of the others. Benedict Cumberbatch, who I just saw in “War Horse”, plays an agent with quite  a few secrets to hide.

Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkov  may not get an award, but she leaves an impression for her role in the film. She’s involved in several of the most shocking scenes. The few women in this film aren’t exactly treated too well.

The heart of the story is just like the field of espionage; it’s about secrets, trust, loyalty, duty… Film critic said that this a film that’s not necessarily about spies. I would disagree with that. It IS about spies. How I would sum the film up is that “The spy game is a lonely business”. It’s about a lot of things, but that one message comes through resoundingly. The film conveys a lot in its imagery, too. There is a chess motif that is carried on through the film; the sound proof  chamber where the heads of ‘The Circus’ meet takes on a checkerboard pattern. The table they do their business at reflects that same. There are many shots that frame the action in box-like compartments. Everyone in the film internalizes much. Keep their secrets drawn in.

The film also has a pallid grey tone to it. It’s set in the middle of the Cold War and every frame mirrors that coldness. The entire film looks damp. Sickly. It captures the dreariness that all of the players seem unable to shake.

‘Tinker Tailor’ may not be for everyone (or maybe I should say for general American audiences). It’s very British. It’s deliberately paced. It has a lot of information to take in. It views the proceedings very unemotionally. It’s not an overly violent film, but the violence that is in the film IS intense (and quite graphic… It’s a hard ‘R’). It’s a film that requires some patience. In a year where it seems that quality films have been ‘slim pickin’s’, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is  a  beacon of excellence. So once again, I watch a film featuring Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) at the beginning of the year (released in the previous year) and I have to move the film to… the top of my ‘Best 10 Films’ list? Find out here.

5 of 5

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