Thursday, December 29, 2011


There is an early scene in TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY that is quite the Tell; Benedict Cumberbatch’s young character gets agitated as he angrily and unsuccessfully swats at a fly while driving, and the problem is eventually solved when Gary Oldman’s elder character simply opens a window. The scene sums up the film in this way: TTSS is not a movie for the impatient young mind, but for the mature wisdom that comes with age. It is a dense and brooding international spy thriller requiring patience, making much of current Hollywood “thrillers” seem like child’s play.

In 1973 Cold War era, the Chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as Control (John Hurt), suspects one of the men closest to him at the top to be a Russian spy (mole). This includes his top lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), which he assigns unique codenames (hence the title of the movie). Control sends Agent Prideaux (Mark Strong) undercover to help extract the identity of the spy, but the mission ends badly, resulting in the resignations of Control and Smiley. After Control dies, Smiley is called out of retirement to secretly hunt for the spy again, this time with the help of disgraced agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and new agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).

As long as that above plot summary may seem, it barely scratches the surface of the many maze-like layers TTSS has. The secret to the mole’s identity seems to lie in the undercover mission which ended badly; how it came about, the immediate aftermath, and the ripple effects that lasted years later. The film then unfolds through a series of flashbacks, not always in chronological order; spreading the pieces of the puzzle across the table for us to piece together.

But piecing together that puzzle is not easy. Even with strict attention, clarity seems to be lacking here. A second viewing may be required to see if there is a “a-ha!” moment which reveals the mole’s identity, but it’s possible that there isn’t one; for TTSS is dense enough that the puzzle only makes sense when all the pieces come together at the end. But even with the complex plot, the film is a great watch.

Director Tomas Alfredson creates a great atmosphere powered by terse and tense dialogue as powerful as any cinematic gunfight or explosion, and still makes time for the great characters to grow and develop before our eyes. This is also a perfectly-executed period-piece; a world full of cigarette smoking, whiskey flasks in the office with rotary phones flanked by trenchcoats. In this 1970’s world, the mystery cannot be solved by gadgets, but by the mind.

Acting is superb, and it should be considering the heavyweight-champion cast. The most credit goes to Oldman, Hurt and Firth, and the film really reminds us how great they really are, and always have been. Bringing up the rear and equally impressive are Toby Jones, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy, with Hardy being barely recognizable. Perhaps the one gripe about the acting is that there are very few scenes in which these great actors get to face off against each other in an adversarial way; the few that do are so darn good that we just want more of it.

The reveal of the mole’s identity isn’t done with an attempt at a clever twist with loud noises and over-orchestration, and is instead executed with the subtle intensity the film carries throughout. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is indeed a bit of a maddening labyrinth to trek through, but like any good labyrinth has a pleasant reward at the center for those hearty enough to make it.


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