Dense, impenetrable spy drama based a the John le Carré best seller, concerns the Circus – the British Secret Intelligence Service – and their investigation of a Soviet mole which they believe has infiltrated the highest ranks of their organization. To say this talky production demands your concentration, is a gross understatement. The first half will undoubtedly be a confusing experience for those unfamiliar with the author’s espionage novels. However during the second half the puzzle pieces start to fit together. For patient viewers with the tolerance to follow the story, it’s a handsomely mounted period piece.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not an easy plot to comprehend. The narrative frequently jumps from the present to various points in the past – some recent, some not so recent. There is absolutely no warning to indicate these frequent shifts in time. Realizing the position a character holds and when they retired, will help immeasurably with the sequence of events. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll catch that one individual has died in the present so any moment he’s on screen, you know it’s part of history. John le Carré is fond of using technical jargon in his novels. The movie adaptation doesn’t shy away from this either. The Circus, Witchcraft, Karla and Control are all code names for things that can be inferred from context but are never explicitly explained. It takes awhile to realize the never seen, but constantly referred to Karla is not a woman at all but the Soviet Intelligence officer who recruits and controls the mole inside the Circus. This is merely one bit of information the filmmakers assume you will “get”. Trust me. You’ll be thankful for this knowledge should you decide to trudge through the script’s murky chronology. I’ll leave you to discover the rest on your own.
In the end, one’s enjoyment of Tinker Tailor will hinge on one simple, but all important fact: that you actually care about finding out who the mole is. I didn’t. The dispassionate script failed to capture my interest in this regard. The dense narrative is crippling. For me, the picture’s charms rely on one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch give noteworthy performances, but Gary Oldman is the standout. He proves what a chameleon of an actor he is, as he perfectly embodies George Smiley. His portrayal compares favorably with Alec Guinness who memorably played the part in two highly successful BBC TV series (the original Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in 1979, and Smiley’s People, made in 1982). It’s an undeniably commendable production. The period details of Europe during the Cold War in the early 1970s are beautifully presented in a superior staging of wardrobe and music. Tinker Tailor is steeped in the depressing mood so often found in Scandinavian cinema. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson favors stark locales and deliberate pacing. I trust fans of the book will find more to love here. Not having read the 1974 British spy novel, I was motivated to watch the film twice. I can attest to the fact that while it makes sense on a second viewing, the movie is still a seriously underwhelming experience.