Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Film Review

For a slow-burning, adult-oriented feature, the new film by Tomas Alfredson, director of 2009’s Let the Right One In, has been a huge box office success. £20m in takings at the UK box office, plus an extended and wide cinematic release. While reactions from mainstream audiences have been mixed, the film has largely been praised by critics as a successful adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel. Those who have loved it have praised Gary Oldman’s interpretation of George Smiley (Britian’s second favourite spy) as well as the performances of the all-star supporting cast, which includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones and Mark Strong.

With such awesome talent on screen, backed by an exciting director and powerhouse screenwriters (the late Bridget O’ Connor and her husband Peter Straughan), it’s fair to say that I had high expectations of this film. And though I think it has its merits, I was mostly underwhelmed.

There are a few, rather significant problems. Firstly, the narrative failed to engage me – and I didn’t feel anything for the main character, George Smiley. He felt purely functional, a tour guide through a labrynthian plot that suspended its main reveal (the identity of the mole at the very top of British intelligence) without keeping me in suspense. There was nothing personally at stake for him. The film offers little to no insight into his experience as a human being in the situations depicted. He undergoes no change; the inciting incident is poorly developed; and there are no fundamental choices he has to make over the course of the story. To paraphrase, Robert McKee – there is characterisation, but no character. I just did not connect at all. I didn’t like him, I didn’t dislike him.

The second problem with the film is its failure to question the role played by UK intelligence. Smiley is not portrayed as a hero, but as far as the film’s concerned, he’s on the right side; and has every reason to be proud of the legacy he and Control (his former boss played by John Hurt) have left behind. One would have thought that some moral ambiguity would have been called for – would have enhanced the story. But all we’re offered is Smiley’s acknowledgement that the West doesn’t have anything more to offer than the East. Yawn.

I also found the narrative too compressed. Whereas the television adaptation of the novel provided enough space for development of secondary characters (the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Spy of the title), this is sorely lacking in the script and finished film. If the core question we’re meant to be concerned with is the identity of the mole, we’re not given nearly enough time with the main contenders to raise our suspicions, or be led and misled down different paths – which is the primary pleasure one gets from suspense thrillers. In this sense, the film and its characters are a victim of their subservience to the plot. Neither are able to shine because of it.

Overall, I felt the piece lacked authenticity. Partly, it was the dialogue, but partly it was the actors’ line readings which at times felt pitched at the level of a bad radio play. This was perhaps the most surprising given the stature of the cast.

Alfredson appears to have been restrained by the big budget he was handling. As if the producers said to him, fine have your muted palate and low light cinematography (incidentally the best thing about the film) but that’s it. His camera movements, framing and blocking of the action are all unexceptional – and don’t live up to the promise he showed with Let the Right One In. Let’s hope this is just a case of him “doing one for them” so he can return to more personal and innovative projects like the one he built his name on.

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About Darwin Franks

Filmmaker, Cinephile, Writer, Athiest, Civil Servant

One comment

  1. Hmmmm…. I think that you’re issue with George Smiley as a character is a very interesting one. I personally felt that he perfectly judged as a realistic spy. He felt very flat, very grey, quiet, unassuming, intelligent – just as a spy should. His character is such that he is not allowed to give things away in the dramatic style that most films, screenplays and directors would have had the freedom to. The fact that despite him being this kind of character we get deep insights into the man throughout the movie is a massive testament both the Gary Oldman and Thomas Alfredson. I just cannot agree in the slightest that an audience member does not feel anything for George Smiley. If someone cannot be moved when he turns the chess piece to find that Control suspected him too, when he losers his temper for one split second at the end or in any of the scenes concerning his wife (the scene in which he recounts his meeting with Karla is electric and the simplicity of steadying himself on the bannister in the final shot is masterful) then I think that they are looking for something more showy from the film and thus, this isn’t the film for them.

    I can’t really comment on the story being too compressed as I’ve never read the book nor seen the TV series – though I would not want to compare them given the differing restraints of the medium. Having not seen the show I did not feel that the narrative was too compressed at al and felt that the slow pace of the film and fast pace f the plot were balanced deftly. I also did not feel the need for any more time to be spent with the Tinker,Tailor etc. They nailed almost every character and relationship in the snippets of the Christmas party that play out throughout the film and give exactly as much information as the audience need. Other things are just suggested and it’s left to the audience to decide on them for themselves.

    As far as framing and blocking go I think that this can be put down to a difference of opinion. Personally I thought that there were some truly beautiful uses of the camera in this movie, not least the shot that sees Smiley and Bill in the frame together and tells us everything we need to know about Smiley’s relationship with his wife and their relationship with each other as well as moving the plot forward all in ten seconds without dialogue. For me, that is absolutely exceptional and again fits with the restraint that complements his lead character perfectly. Conveying everything (seemingly) so effortlessly without flourish is just as remarkable as drifting your camera around the room a la Béla Tarr.

    So as I said, I think it just comes down to wanting different things from the film. I loved the restraint showed by Oldman and Alfredson and the fact that they conveyed so much with those ‘obstructions’ makes it all the more masterful in my eyes.

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