Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has a lot going for it. Its source material is very well respected, its director was responsible for a beloved cult film (Let the Right One In), and it has a cast full of very reliable actors, both established and up-and-coming. Everything was set for this film to be a very engaging, thought-provoking espionage thriller. And, indeed, there are moments of brilliance in the film. So why did it end up being so generally unsatisfying?
My feeling is that there is simply too much story. The backbone of the film- the highest ranking spy network in England has a double agent working within it- is very intriguing, but as the details unfold, we find ourselves getting lost in nuggets of half-formed information revealed by characters we’ve only just met that are never really developed. The first hour of the film is very laborious, as we are introduced not only to the situation, but to the dozen or so notable characters. The second half picks up considerably and we’re better able to not only follow what is happening, but we’re actually invested in the characters.
This was never going to be a conventional spy film, which is why I was so looking forward to it. I was hoping that it would be like Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a dry procedural anchored by a world-weary protagonist. And, in some says, it is like that film, but sadly focuses too much on the “dry procedural” aspect than the “world-weary protagonist.” Gary Oldman’s George Smiley has a great deal of potential as a character. He is quiet and unassuming, which makes him very good at his job. However, at his core, we discover that he has a great deal of passion and love.
To see Oldman at the forefront of any film is always a very exciting prospect, but the director keeps him on the sideline for the first half, while less interesting characters are given more screen time. In many ways, I can understand such a strategy. After all, Smiley is not the type of man that allows himself to take center stage until he has to and, as the investigation progresses, he is required to take a larger and larger role. Unfortunately, once he does, it feels somehow arbitrary. It seems like we’ve simply been introduced to yet another new character, albeit a very interesting one.
Once Smiley does start getting a bit more talkative, he is fascinating. He is a man of great intelligence and depth. Previously seen as cold and calculating, we come to realize that he simply holds in his emotions, saving them away for when they will have the most impact. And, as he confronts those that seem to not take their jobs as seriously as he does, we see the relish he takes in finally allowing himself to speak his mind. Oldman’s performance is really remarkable and I’m once again reminded that he is one of our best and most versatile actors.
The rest of the cast is also stellar in their admittedly limited roles. Colin Firth, so convincingly terrified in The King’s Speech, reasserts his breezy charm as a character that has more going on underneath than he lets on. Toby Jones, a greatly under appreciated actor, creates a genuinely disagreeable character here; a man who has let the stress of a national security job influence his attitude and behavior. John Hurt, as the head of the whole covert operation, makes some interesting choices, in that he imbues his character with a mix of cynicism and playfulness, almost as if the various atrocities he’s seen- and, in some cases, been responsible for- have made him realize just how pointless all the scrambling seems to be.
Also notable are Mark Strong and Tom Hardy, who both make the most of their short narratives by seizing on every glance and gesture to demonstrate just how finely tuned these soldiers can be. Finally, a relative newcomer on the scene is Benedict Cumberbatch, whose work on the BBC show “Sherlock” is fresh and brilliant. Cumberbatch’s character is key, in that he is fairly new to the world of covert ops and we see how easy it is to get sucked into the proceedings, and the emotional toll it can take to do so.
It is in this exploration that we come down to what the film is really about. Despite the breathless exposition of the first hour, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about something much simpler. As we see the lives and personalities of these men, we come to see how truly lonely they are. They have put so much into their work- work that takes a little bit of their soul with every decision they make- that they find they have nothing left. Oh, they may have wives (or, in some cases, boyfriends), but those relationships are rarely more than perfunctory. True, committed love is a liability that these men simply cannot afford, no matter how desperately they may want it.
By the end of the film, we are left with a bunch of men that are not good or evil or paranoid or courageous. They are exhausted, drained of anything worthwhile by a job that requires more than any sane person can give. When the identity of the mole is finally revealed, he seems to be more relieved than anything else. At least now he doesn’t have to exert so much energy to conceal himself. In a way, I found myself surprisingly sympathetic towards him. If just being a normal government agent requires so much, imagine how much it takes to be a double agent. I’m reminded of a recurring line in the Bourne film series. It is often the last thing a character says before they die.
“Look at what they make you give.”
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about men that have had to give everything until, for a few, there is nothing left to give. Underneath the intrigue, there is a deep sadness to it all. These men know that, no matter how much they achieve today, there will always be another problem to deal with tomorrow. And they’re going to be the ones to deal with it, whether they want to or not.
Ultimately, this film is pretty good. There is a lot to like about it. There are great performances and some genuinely suspenseful moments. But, those moments are suspenseful almost in spite of the film; they seem to exist solely because the actors so expertly convince us that something big is happening. The film feels too packed to really allow most of the suspense to unfold in a satisfying way. It felt like a man running late for a meeting. No time for pleasantries; he’s got somewhere to be and he needed to be there five minutes ago.
In many ways, it is unfortunate that I went into the film knowing about the 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guiness. Just knowing that there was a longer, more methodically-paced version of this story out there was a detriment to my watching this film. Because, at almost every turn, I found myself thinking, “Wow. That scene sure went by fast. I guess I gotta watch that miniseries.”