I have a confession. I’m someone who tends to struggle to follow even moderately complicated movie plots. I have a bad habit of zoning out at the exact moments when I should be paying attention. You probably know which moments I’m talking about. It’s the ones where one character spends five minutes carefully laying out detailed plot exposition to another character, and to the audience. This is usually done in really unrealistic, heavy-handed ways that grind the movie to a halt. And while I’m definitely to blame for this shortcoming (I really should just listen more closely), I also like to pass the buck to the filmmakers. Maybe if they set out their exposition in more interesting, subtle ways, I would be compelled to pay attention, no?
This is where I give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a lot of credit. This is a complicated film. I imagine that even people more perceptive than I will struggle to follow every intricacy of the plot. However, it lays out its spiderweb of a narrative in compelling, unique ways. By switching between time periods, countries, and about a dozen different characters, things could easily get muddled. And while I wasn’t always 100% following every detail, director Tomas Alfredson did a great job of keeping things coherent and interesting.
At its core, Tinker Tailor is a who-done-it film. Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a retired British Intelligence agent who must help his old crew figure out who among their group is actually a Soviet mole. That’s literally it. Of course, there is much more to the story than that, but I’ll let you sort out the finer details on your own.
The story is complex, and it gives you a lot to think about while watching. But the film can also be enjoyed on many different levels. Most notably (to me), it’s just gorgeous to look at. Alfredson’s visual style is right up my alley, full of damp tones, and sparse cinematography. Some of his shots of the London streets are absolutely breathtaking. His style seems very well-suited to the Cold War era, and he evokes such atmosphere. The tension and paranoia is almost palpable through the camera, and that is arguably the film’s strongest suit.
Of course, you also have to talk about the performances. Gary Oldman is magnificent, as always. George Smiley is such a repressed character, and Oldman nails it. Smiley plays his cards close to his chest, yet Oldman brilliantly gives away tiny hints in his expressions and body language to let the audience in on his emotions. These hairline cracks in the facade are far more telling than any over-the-top “freak out” scene that most movie character inevitably experience. I give Oldman huge kudos for having the steely, commanding screen presence to pull of what could have been a completely bland character.
The most surprising performance for me was from Mark Strong, though. It seems like Strong has made a career out of playing villains in blockbusters like Kick-Ass and Sherlock Holmes. I’ve seen him in at least half a dozen films, and while he’s always fine, he’s never made much of an impression on me. But he is brilliant in this movie. From the first 10 seconds of his performance, I knew that this was a different Mark Strong. He plays a British intelligence agent sent on a mission to Hungary, and he shows such a range of emotions and a great amount of soulfulness. This could easily have been a throwaway character, but Strong inhabits every inch of this role. I wouldn’t have thought that Strong would suit this type of movie, but he actually gives my favourite performance in the film, and one of my favourite Supporting Actor performances of the year.
Tom Hardy is also very charismatic as Ricki Tarr, a British agent accused of betrayal. It’s nice to see his character get a personal story arc, since much of the rest of the film is centered around the characters’ professional endeavours.
That’s actually one issue that I had with the film. It would have been nice to bring a little more warmth to the story and some of the characters. Of course, this film is all about the mystery, rather than the character study, but a little back story would help it feel less dry.
However, that’s not to say that it’s a boring movie. Quite the opposite, even if the pace is a bit slow. Alfredson is an expert at building tension, and the screenplay is taught enough to prevent Tinker Tailor from dragging. This movie would be worth seeing for the performances alone, so the fact that it’s also a beautifully shot, well-constructed thriller is just a bonus.