REVIEW: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

19 03 2012

The impressive accomplishments in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” are manifold.  The first, and perhaps what will stick with me the most, is how immaculately crafted the movie is.  Every aspect below the line is crisp and precise, be it Alberto Iglesias’ subtle score, Hoyte van Hoytema’s swift camerawork, Maria Djurkovic’s richly detailed sets, or the unbelievably meticulous control over sound and silence.  “Hugo” may have been the Academy’s technical darling of 2011, but this movie can rival its excellence in all those categories (except maybe visual effects).

The second is Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley, one of his finest on-screen roles yet.  Much was made of how criminal it was that the lauded character actor had not received an Oscar nomination before “Tinker Tailor,” and thankfully now that has been corrected.  But there is much more to this work than merely endowing Oldman with the epithet “Academy Award nominee.”

Oldman shows his mastery of understatement playing Smiley, a man of few words.  When he’s not speaking, we never have a doubt that Oldman is totally within his character’s mind, never moving a pore without purpose.  When he is speaking, Oldman is forceful and commanding, owning the screen that includes one of the largest casts of acclaimed British actors outside the “Harry Potter” series.  It’s an acting master class from one of the industry’s best and brightest, definitely one Hollywood could learn a lesson or two from as well.

That’s not to say, though, that the other men don’t get a chance to shine.  Colin Firth’s Bill Haydon is intriguing, rising star Tom Hardy once again proves a scene stealer as Ricki Tarr, and John Hurt as “Control,” probably the oldest of the bunch, delivers an emotionally gripping performance in a movie that is otherwise very cold and procedural.  The only person that really comes close to matching Oldman, however, is Benedict Cumberbatch (previously seen in “War Horse“) as Smiley’s right-hand man throughout the plot.  His fidgety nervousness in the face of his boss’ stolid placidity does wonders for increasing the tension of the film.

The third big accomplishment, the script, comes with a caveat.  I am amazed that Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan could condense John le Carré’s dense novel into a two-hour movie; the book was last adapted as a television mini-series (and starred Alec Guinness no less).  Compressing the story without diluting it too much and portraying so many characters without sacrificing their integrity is no easy task, and they do much of it without a lot of wordiness.  Alfredson takes their screenplay at an easy clip, too, never inundating us with too much at once.

While the movie may be slow and deliberate, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a demanding movie that begins to tug more and more on your brain as the events progress.  There is just so much to process, and the gentle revelations make it hard to decipher what is important to retain for later.  I’m not saying every spy movie has to be so blatantly obvious as a James Bond picture, but they move so quickly that we often don’t mind having clarity.  Here, it becomes frustrating as it feels like we should be able to know exactly what’s going on … yet there are just so many details and ambiguities that it may be impossible to keep up at any speed.

The Cold War story of rooting out a mole in the top of the British intelligence agency certainly makes for a compelling, high-stakes movie, and the payoff in the end certainly makes it feel like you have watched precisely that movie.  But at least for the first viewing, it’s a tasking tax in near futility to keep up with what happens in between the few moments in the beginning and the end when everything is clear.  Maybe once I can process the details of the story with a little help from Wikipedia and IMDb, this grade will rise.  But for now … B

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