Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

By Tom Houseman

December 27, 2011

I wonder what Batman is doing right now.

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The Cold War was a messy and confusing time in world history (it's funny that we egotistical Americans think of it as strictly a US vs. them thing). Unlike World War II, there were not clearly delineated good guys and bad guys fighting each other with guns and bombs. This was a war of treachery and deceit, where little blood was shed, where the goal was not winning battles but gaining information, while making sure that the other side had as little as possible. In short, nobody had any idea what was going on.

This is a proper analogy for Tomas Alfredson's newest film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an ambitious film about Cold War confusion and misinformation, about British MI6 espionage experts trying to sniff out duplicity from within their ranks. Perhaps it is that this was too broad and complex a story to squeeze into just over two hours, with too many characters attempting to relay too much information, but sadly, the film is an absolute mess. The goal of adapting John LeCarre's intentionally murky and tortuous tale to the big screen resulted in a film that spins in so many circles that it makes the audience dizzy (not literally; this isn't a Christopher Nolan film). Exposition is stuffed into exposition like a turducken of dissemblance, leaving us more confused with each piece of information.

Which would be effective if the film were presented as a puzzle, a complex labyrinth with twists and turns that eventually lead us to an answer. But it ends up more like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle with 50 pieces missing. With what we are given, we can't expect to form a coherent narrative, and with so many gaps in the picture, there's nothing much to see. Characters pop in and out with little explanation as to who they are or what they are doing. With a movie like this nobody should expect everything spelled out for them, but it's hard to play a word search when most of the letters have been redacted.


The need to pack so much plot information into such a small amount of time sacrifices character development, which is a shame, because such an extraordinary group of actors deserves more than the breadcrumbs tossed to them by the script. Gary Oldman is the closest thing this film has to a lead, and shines in his few meaty moments. But for the most part he is reserved and stoic, which, because we know so little about the character, makes him uncompelling as a protagonist. Similarly, veterans John Hurt and Colin Firth do their best with what little they have, but are woefully underused. The only standouts in the large cast are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, playing the only two characters who have strong character arcs. Fortunately, the only standout characters are not wasted, as Cumberbatch and Hardy are remarkably talented actors who make themselves memorable in amidst the confusion of the film.

It is possible that those who have read LeCarre's novel will go into the film with a better understanding of the plot and characters, and therefore will enjoy the film more than those unfamiliar with the story. But when I hear people proclaim the superiority of the 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation, I am inclined to agree with them, although I haven't seen it. Some stories cannot be told in two hours and change, and this winding, weaving, twisting and turning spy yarn is one of them. There is a great story hidden in this film, but the way it is told by Alfredson and writers Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan turns it into an expert spy: amidst all of the confusion, it simply gets lost.



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