It is not entirely fair that I felt slightly disappointed after seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I probable was expecting too much. Much more than any spy thriller could be expected to deliver. But then again, that first trailer was so good, it was such a work of beauty, that Tinker Tailor… was going to be the best film of the year for me. And that was before I even knew what it was about.
So it is not entirely fair, my disappointment. And yet there are valid reasosn for being disappointed as well. But we’ll start with the good things. John LeCarre’s original novel tells an incredibly sprawling, slow story of betrayal and paranoia in the heighdays of the Cold War. It is a cerebral affair. The central investigation is neither Bond-esque, with lots of action, nor Holmesian, with spectacular deductions. At its most action-packed it is a game of mental chess, played by old grey men with histories they do not speak about. To summarize: it is not a particularly filmic, visually engaging affair.
But Thomas Alfredson, previously of the fantastic Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, has managed to make this story a visually engaging adventure. He has managed to breath life into the dusty archives, the smoke-stained and hideous wallpapers and 1973 London. Due to a combination of gorgeous set design and wonderful cinematography Tinker Tailor… has a unique look and identity.
Also, the film is spectacularly cast, employing more or less the entire who-is-who of British quality actors. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt and Tom Hardy don’t even get that much to do, but when called upon they deliver career high performances. Mark Strong is sensational as the betrayed, wounded and psychologically broken field agent Jim Prideaux. But the most surprising supporting role is for Kathy Burke, perhaps best known from Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth. Burke provides the one laugh in this film, the one moment of relief amongst all the tension. And that moment is memorable.
Having mentioned Oldman, it is now time to kneel down and salute this acting genius. He owns the film as protagonist George Smiley. Smiley is an intelligence legend, forced into retirement after an hungarian operation ending badly. But he is brought back by the powers that be when the pressumedly defected agent Ricki Tarr (Hardy) returns to London, with evidence of a Soviet mole in the highest positions in the service. Smiley is suddenly the only person that can be trusted enough to investigate the matter. Oldman’s Smiley is not a hero, nor a man of action. He is a silent observer and reader, a tactician. Almost inhuman, if he weren’t wounded by the betrayal of his own wife. An career-defining performance that should see Oldman at least nominated for all the major awards.
This is the trailer that got me all excited in the first place.
Why was I then so disappointed? Well, because the plot of the film is a mess. This is such an intriguing story, and for most of the time anyone who has not reas LeCarre’s book, the film was completely incomprehensible. There is the matter of the peculiar lingo for instance, in which the intelligence service is ‘the circus’, the KGB is ‘Moscow Centre’ and Karla is a mysterious person or organisation hinted at but not introduced. Characters appear suddenly and apparently without reason in Tinker Tailor.., and disappear just as quickly. And the pace is all off. Too slow in the beginning and way too fast during the climax, which was completely impossible to follow. But the most annoying things were all the flashbacks, which just robbed the film of its last shreds of coherence. LeCarre often has people telling stories about the past in his novel, and that works fine there, but in this film it does not.
The crowd I was watching the film with, people who had not read the book and had no previous knowledge of the plot, were left with a vacant expression on there faces. Feeling dumb they did not understand something that was nonetheless so obviously of some seriously high quality. A very, very mixed feeling and quite a disappointment.