Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

A lot of spies doing a lot of spying in a most restrained manner!

Screenplay By: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson

I once listened to a review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from one of my favorite critics, Mark Kermode. After said review he received a lot of guff from his listenership as well as his co-host, Simon Mayo. Dr. Kermode had the audacity to put forth the notion that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wasn’t actually about spying. Rather, Tomas Alfredson had made a film about the relationships between the men that make up the British spy world in the film. The spying was secondary, it was the knowing glances and the tidbits of unspoken info exchanged that was the primary thrust of the film.

Perhaps my knowledge of Dr. Kermode’s beliefs colored my view of the film, but I couldn’t agree with him more. The spying elements of the film are fantastically done, and the plot somehow manages to coil around all the spy games so that it is both dense and yet easy to unravel. But, it is the characters in the film, it is the “men stuck in a room filled with acrid smoke” as Dr. Kermode put it that drive the film. I’d go even further than Dr. Kermode and say that it is also the men stuck in a world that they know is somehow dying who make the film tick. The writing is on the wall, they have had their time as spy kings, but new times are ahead and they will not be along for the ride.

That prevailing attitude informs the plot just as much as it does the tone of the film. The characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are neither evil nor good. They are shady figures grasping for something solid in a world where solid is but an unrealized concept. They do not betray or stay loyal in the true meaning of those words. Rather, they switch sides at will and play their spy games because they only have what is around the next corner.

The personal lives of these men fall apart around them because they can’t commit to anything as engaging as a real personal life. When Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam is forced to sever ties with his boyfriend he cries. I do believe there is a part of him that genuinely cries over the loss of someone he had grown close to. At the same time I firmly believe that Peter is donning the reaction he believes he must in such a situation. He lives in a world of masks and changing allegiances, and the happiness he displays on his face at a later point in the film shows how emotion can turn on a dime in the world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Emotion is not a part of Gary Oldman’s performance as Smiley. His character manages the meager act of raising his voice once throughout the entire film. Mr. Oldman is not choosing the showy route in his performance. He stays in step with the rest of the cast and opts instead for a restrained and ultimately fabulous performance. From top to bottom the cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds back in their performances. They can’t display much emotion, and in the instances when they do display emotion it is not clear whether or not their emotion is genuine. No matter the twist or turn, no matter whether it is Gary Oldman or Toby Jones, the acting in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the stuff that legends are made of.

It would appear that two films into his career Herr Alfredson is charting a path towards legendary status. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shows the same steady hand that impressed me so much in Låt Den Rätte Komma In. More impressive even is the fact that Herr Alfredson has seamlessly switched from his native Swedish tongue to English with nary a bump in the road. His focus on layering remains just as tight, and his willingness to step back and allow those around him to do their jobs remains intact. I don’t know what is on the horizon from Herr Alfredson, but whatever it may be you can count me in as being along for the ride.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film that grows, both in tension and in its ability to probe in a jab like fashion at the brain of the viewer. I had to pause the movie at one point, and I was shocked to discover that over a hour and a half had already passed. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy felt almost breezy in its denseness and its machinations, and for that feat alone it gets kudos from me. Loyalty and the human facade  trump the spying in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the end result is an all time great picture.




4 responses to “Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

  1. Mark Middlemas

    Such an interesting film. I really didn’t expect what I got with this one, but it was pleasant, albeit deepy restrained, surprise.

  2. Great review! I especially like this line: “They are shady figures grasping for something solid in a world where solid is but an unrealized concept” – perfectly encapsulates the world and the characters. It’s one of my favorite films of last year – just so brilliant in every way. I’m so glad you loved it, too! And I agree with Kermode and you: it’s not a film about spying.

  3. This is an excellent review. It’s easy for me to say that because I liked the movie too, but this review is incredibly well written.

  4. Mark- I didn’t expect what I got from this film either, but I loved what the film ended up giving me. Like I said i my review, I can’t wait to see what Tomas Alfredson does next.

    Melissa – Thanks for the kind words Melissa. I remembered how much flack Kermode got for his take of the film, but after I finished watching it his view was the only one that took on a solid shape in my mind. The spying in the film is great, but those characters, man, those characters. 🙂

    Edgar – Thanks a lot man, that level of praise means a lot coming from you. 🙂

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