Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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.

14 Responses to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

  1. I think it’s the way the flashbacks were presented. One had to pay attention when there was a flashback otherwise they’d still think they were in the present. I think it’s a great film, though.


  2. This really was difficult to follow. I too, did not care who the mole was either. I was so confused with all the flashbacks, I couldn’t keep up. Acting was great.


    • Because I knew who the mole was the second time I watched, I looked to see if there were clues or hints that a vigilant viewer could use to solve the mystery. There wasn’t. The script didn’t give you enough information to make a knowledgeable deduction, just confusing distractions.


  3. Nice review, Mark! I’ll be watching TTSS this week. Hope I understand it!


  4. I really liked TTSS, It was slow, no action at all and mostly talking, Just like the cold war itself. Great film, great acting. stunning cast list. Will definitely get an Oscar nod even if it doesnt win an award


  5. With so much information being thrown at us, I wish that there was much more time for all of it to just sink in but I liked the fact that the film made you pay attention to every little detail as this story just kept building and building. Everybody here in this cast is great too, especially Oldman who perfectly brings this flick together. Good review Mark.


  6. Sacrilege Mark! Haha – It seems you and @MGCTvTheBeast were of the same opinion on this one – I preferred that there were no clues….although, I do think you could start making the shortlist of candidates of possible moles smaller by the final half hour…. While I can understand the need to care about the main protagonists task – I found that the execution of this film (cast, acting, scoring, cinematography) was so superb; I loved every aspect of this film!


    • Sacrilege indeed! When I was writing this review I remembered that you had put this in your Top5. My friend Alan also did the same. I wanted so much to love this film and I just couldn’t. I even watched it twice to see if the problems I had with it were because of an inability to follow the narrative. The second time I understood all of it so that wasn’t the issue for me. It’s just emotionally aloof. It’s a beautifully made film so I get where you’re coming from at least.


  7. martin250 Says:

    Agreed.nicely written. what a difficult film to follow.the unexpected time shifts and dispassionate script really made it unrelaxing viewing. i saw this twice. i would give it 2 .5 stars for some of its acting and period set details.


  8. atothewr Says:

    A nice review and I am wondering now if turning it off at the fifty minute mark was a mistake. It seems like it started cooking in the second half of the movie. I don’t mind movies that deliver a slow punch and I don’t need them to hurry along. I just wish this one had something a little more compelling to grab me at the start.

    I hear people say they saw it twice and I wonder how when I couldn’t even make it through it once. Even my review of it was tough to write. It just seems like everything is tough when it comes to this movie for me.


    • Oh I thought you had finished watching the whole film. You should force yourself to complete it. I suspect you still won’t enjoy it, but at least then you can critique it fairly.


      • atothewr Says:

        I might do that at some point and time. I’ve sent it on back to Netflix. If it pops up on Instant Watch I might give it another try.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: