Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Tomas Alfredson
2011 • 127 Minutes • 2.35:1 • United Kingdom

Principal Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy
Screenplay: Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan from the novel by John le Carr├ę
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema

For twenty-five years we’ve been the only thing standing between Moscow and the Third World War!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a troubling film to review. By this I do not mean to imply that it is not a good film. In fact it’s quite good. Very good. Also, very deserving of the recent Oscar nominations it has earned. The problem with this film is that the one major criticism that most critics have of the film is one that I as well echo, but I will nonetheless recommend to you fine viewers. But more on that in a minute.

We’ve been brought up in a culture where spy movies are, for lack of a better term, “cool.” James Bond, the most famous fictional spy of all time, is the height of every male fantasy combined into one slick package. He’s a bad ass. He gets all the ladies. He dresses to the nines. He gets to play with cool toys. He blows stuff up. He drives fast cars. In a word, he’s awesome. Even modern day spies like Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt play off of this archetype. Even a parody like Austin Powers pretty much follows the exact same pattern.

What we get in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy movie that, well, is actually about SPIES. What a concept. Instead of running around blowing stuff up and having sex with gorgeous woman (as awesome as THAT is), this film focuses on the day-to-day life, intrigue and danger of actually spying for another country, becoming a double agent (in some cases a triple agent) and all the people that get caught in the literal and figurative cross-fire.

To describe this plot is a little troubling, and that’s where the criticism comes in. The film has so many twists and turns that most critics (including this one) had a hard time actually following the plot to the point that when the double-crossing secret agent is revealed at the end of the film, it’s almost anti-climactic. That said, as confusing as the film can be, I can’t really knock it. Let’s face it as much I love Goldfinger or The Man with The Golden Gun, those films have highly improbably plots with over-the-top supervillains, improbable action sequences and ridiculous end-of-the-world scenarios. Yes… that is all great fun, but it ends up being filed away as escapist entertainment (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) This film’s plot revolves around a covert British espionage organization trying to find a Russian mole within its ranks during the Cold War in the 1970s. Revealing any more of the plot would head into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it at that. What results is actual spy work. Agents work to investigate the situation. Can we trust him? Whose side is he working for? Who is the mole? What information does the informant have? etc.

There’s no explosions. No gun play. No cool gadgets. No hot blondes in bikinis. Yet, the film still works and it works well… mostly because of its incredibly strong supporting cast.

There’s been a long running joke that in the last 10 years the Harry Potter films have kept every British actor employed as it seems every famous English face has appeared in that franchise. Well, now that the series has finally wrapped up, looks like Tinker Tailor has managed to keep most of them working.

Gary Oldman plays the lead character in George Smiley, perhaps the most ridiculously named spy in the history of… ever. Don’t let the name fool you though, as Smiley is decidedly bad ass. He doesn’t punch anyone or cut the wires on a bomb at the last second, but he is certainly a spy you never want to cross. Does this come as a suprise to anyone, however? Oldman is a consistently amazing actor that delivers every single time. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing Sex Pistols legend Sid Vicious, the prince of Darkness Count Dracula, Stansfield the psycho cop, Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon or a semi-retired spy… slam dunk performance every single time.

Mark Strong shows up in a supporting role, shockingly NOT playing a villain. (NOTE: I don’t consider this a spoiler because even though everyone in this film is a suspect, it’s pretty clear early on that Strong’s character is not the mole.) Strong has played the villain in Sherlock Holmes, Green Lantern and Kick-Ass and he finally gets a mainstream role that doesn’t require pure villainy. He is understated and fascinating as a spy-in-hiding.

This is Colin Firth’s first mainstream film since winning the Oscar last year for The King’s Speech, and surprisingly this is more of a supporting performance. Firth is good as always, but his screen time is limited, which doesn’t give the audience enough time to see him stretch his acting muscles.

Tom Hardy, Toby Jones and John Hurt also pop up in supporting roles, giving the usual strong performances that we have come to expect from them at this point.

From a production standpoint, everything works. The costuming, make-up/hair and art direction seem to fit the 1970s UK atmosphere that this world is set in. The cinematography is beautiful and the film is edited at a decent enough pace.

In short, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a movie you’ll have to pay extremely close attention to, because literally everything and anything could be the clue to who the Russian mole is. It is confusing, no doubt, and you may have to watch it at least twice to catch the subtle clues and understand the ending. That said I applaud the filmmakers for not dumbing down the final product. An excellent, albeit confusing, spy thriller.