Movie Review: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Written by Brent Holmes February 06, 2012

No number of British actors will be able to pull off the suicide mission of making this film watchable.

There is a brilliant spy movie scene around the middle of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in which a strapping young bloke (Benedict Cumberbatch) must steal some secret government documents from the archives of the British Security Service. The scene is built around the character’s paranoia and fear of being caught but leaves open the question of whether or not anyone is actually looking for him. The scene works because every potential misstep is an edge-of-your-seat moment. It is a magnificent scene that a viewer will be lucky to remember by the end of this overly-complex movie.

Based off the novel of the same name by John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is convoluted in the extreme. With an all-star cast including great British actors such as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, John Hurt and Toby Jones, it is baffling that watching this film feels worse than being interrogated by the K.G.B.

The plot should be a relatively simple matter. George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired security service operative who is ‘unofficially’ called back into duty to find a Russian mole in his old team. It would seem a relatively straightforward Cold War spy story, but the plot waffles about whether it wants to follow this kind of archetypal spy film narrative. The only thing the audience can be sure about after the first hour is that screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have been l’eggoing their eggos for too long.

Within the first hour, there are a handful of sub-plots told in flashbacks that are disjointed and impossible to link in with the rest of the narrative. A rather lengthy escapade into Ricki Tarr’s (Tom Hardy) backstory ends with no resolution and while the plot suggests that this sub-plot will be resolved by the end, no resolution is given. It is almost as if director Tomas Alfredson expects the audience to forget it was a part of the narrative.

There are other scenes wherein the film reveals the fate of a specific character before the protagonists are able to figure that out. The problem is that the film is so opposed to giving its audience any context for what is happening that these scenes become disjointed and impossible to follow.

The actors are not given enough time to warm into their roles and neither they or the viewer can ever really get comfortable with these characters. There are literally so many characters who have to be kept track of that the only way to do so is to associate each one with either the actor playing them or with which Thomas the Tank Engine character they happen to share a name. British actors are some of the best in the world and they always perform well, but that doesn’t always mean their characters are compelling.

With the plot and characters already in a scrambled mess, any attempt to solve what the film is getting at thematically is futile. Is the film commenting on the state of Britain in the Cold War as a messenger caught between two competing superpowers? Is the film suggesting that the paranoia of the Cold War was itself an enemy or that there needs to be forces always on the lookout? Good luck trying to solve that mystery.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is an unbearable spy film that demands its viewers watch it twice or to have read the book to even be able to make out what is happening. There are times when watching a film a second time is a rewarding experience that deepens the understanding of what the artist is trying to say but here it is nothing but sloppy filmmaking that makes the film require a second viewing. No number of British actors would be able to pull off the suicide mission of making this film watchable.

My Rating 5/10 

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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