Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is based on the popular spy novel by John le Carre which was previously adapted into a TV miniseries back in 1979. Having never read the book or seen the miniseries, I walked into the new version of the film having been forewarned that it can be a bit hard to keep track of what with multiple characters and events having been condensed from a complex novel, and while it is a little hard to follow at times, it’s not the audience I would blame for this problem.
The story begins as Control (John Hurt), head of British Intelligence, sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a mission to Hungary to try and attempt to bring a possible defector to their side who supposedly knows the identity of a mole at MI6. However, the mission goes wrong, resulting in Control and one of his agents, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), being removed from service. However, when Jim fills George in on Control’s suspicions of a mole, George sets out to discover their identity.
Based on the intelligence leaked, Control believed the mole was someone at the very top, someone in his personal circle, which includes Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), and George. It’s up to George to find out which one of these men is responsible, but having been forced into retirement doesn’t make this an easy task, causing him to recruit another agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), to assist in the investigation.
To put it simply, “Tinker Tailor Solder Spy” has a good story in it somewhere, but you wouldn’t really know that from its poor execution here. The structure of it is quite strange. This is a film where not much happens, and yet you have to be particularly observant when it comes to even the most mundane event or the passing mention of a character because it may become important later.
Most of the runtime of the film is spent on events that have little to do with George’s investigation. There’s even a good deal of the first half spent listening to the story of a disgraced agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), that has practically nothing to do with it at all. All of these events lead up to an ending that feels incredibly rushed. In a bizarre choice, the filmmakers opted to squeeze the majority of the actual plot into the last 20 or so minutes.
One of the major problems with this is that they haven’t bothered to develop the suspects with all of the time wasted away on those events which didn’t add much, if anything, to the story, so by the time we get around to who was responsible, it feels random and even a bit lazy. You’ll also probably be asking yourself, if it was that easy to find out who did it, why didn’t George just do that sooner?
There are parts that are hard to follow, but as mentioned earlier, the audience is hardly to be blamed for this. To be asked to put together a puzzle when pieces are missing or not explained very well can be hard to do. I got most of the plot, but even after perusing the screenplay, parts of the conclusion I had to put together based on guesses due to the lack of explanation and plot points.
It’s a shame that so many of the characters are left undeveloped because there’s such a great cast here including Gary Oldman, John Hurt, and Colin Firth. Oldman is a particular oddity here. Usually he plays much more eccentric characters, but here he’s very subdued, speaking softly and never in a rush to get anything done. You could even go so far as to say that he’s pretty bland. Here’s the performance that we’ve been hearing so much about, one that could possibly get him an Oscar nomination, and it turns out that it’s a pretty forgettable one.
The film comes to us from director Tomas Alfredson, who brought us the excellent vampire film “Let the Right One In.” That was a film where slow pacing and dark mood helped out quite a bit because the time was spent allowing us to get to know the characters and allowing us to connect and care about them. The slow pacing of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is merely squandered on several unimportant events instead of important character and plot development, so that when it comes to the sped up pacing of those last 20 minutes, you’re left wondering why you should care about who was responsible.
From watching the film, it ends up feeling like maybe reading the book should be a prerequisite, or perhaps viewing the five-hour miniseries would be a good idea. Perhaps with all that extra time, the story is fully explained and the characters are allowed to develop to the point where we know who they are. By the end of this version, you may know the basic plot, but questions will arise that you’ll wish they took the time to answer. 2.5/4 stars.