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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) spoiler-free review

REVIEWS - MOVIES

An assured yet not very Smiley thriller...

Gary Oldman in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' (2011)

To say that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is understated would be an understatement. A very realistic, understated spy film, director Tomas Alfredson’s feature adaptation of John LeCarré’s novel (which has previously been adapted as an acclaimed 1979 TV mini-series) is a quieter, more considered, more cerebral take on the genre than most. It’s far from the white-knuckle thrill ride of Spooks, let alone the gloriously over-the-top action of many James Bond movies. Although Casino Royale (2006), and the Bourne films, too, for that matter, show that you can combine a relatively realistic approach and a solid story with thrilling action sequences.

While subtle and engaging throughout, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also bleak, morally ambiguous, and depressing, with a pervasive sense of paranoia. The characters live in a world where they don’t have a clear grasp on objective truth, and hence also lack moral certainty, which feels less satisfying than a more traditional, more clear-cut battle between good and evil.

It features excellent acting from an impressive cast: between Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, and Mark Strong, the film features, in geek terms, Sirius Black, Bertie, Sherlock Holmes, Arnim Zola / The Dream Lord, Eames / Bane, Aberforth Dumbledore, Mr. Olivander, and Septimus.

Despite this, it never seems like a cheesy “all star cast”; on the contrary, the calibre of the ensemble feels fitting. The characters themselves are all very good actors, as well as requiring great acting to articulate their nuances subtly.

No doubt the understated nature of the film will help it garner many Oscar nominations, ironically overstating the film’s overall quality, though it certainly deserves some recognition in the acting categories. For instance, Tom Hardy’s Ricky Tarr is the least understated and most human character, and hence the most enjoyable to watch. Also, it’s a brilliant performance.

Also, Stephen Graham gives a great, sensitive performance as Jerry Westerby, a far better character than Scrum, the one he played in this summer’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which, though disappointing in terms of the franchise, is nonetheless more straightforwardly entertaining than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The trailer, driven by the powerful music, not featured in the film itself, arguably oversells the film (though such misrepresentation is arguably fitting considering the subject matter...), making the intensity seem more immediate. Though even in the trailer, the visuals were obviously less flashy than the music.

A lot of the film rests on the characters simply exchanging looks. While all the actors are indeed brilliant, it’s often frustrating to know that a character is thinking deep and meaningful thoughts, but not knowing what they are. A lot is left for viewers to figure out themselves. Similarly, the film employs numerous flashbacks, but with no obvious signalling that this is what’s happening. One scene simply follows another, but not in an entirely linear fashion, time-wise, and so, as with the rest of the film, it’s up to the viewer to figure out what goes where.

This approach may appeal more to some viewers than others. It’s very understated, and probably demands repeat viewings, like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Unlike that film, though, it’s not a visionary piece of work, though the elegant, precise, measured direction is much more than adequate. The Tree of Life is more poetic and emotional in its approach, whereas Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is more prosaic and cerebral; not that The Tree of Life doesn’t have plenty of ideas going on as well.

Also in contrast to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the similarly 1970s-set Super 8, which centres on small town life rather than the spy world, is not only skilfully directed, but also features much more emotion and much more action than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

(Incidentally, Super 8 director J.J. Abrams has just officially confirmed that he’ll be directing Star Trek 2, returning to the helm of the franchise after his awesome 2009 reboot. After over two years of almost but not quite committing to directing the film, are we now living in an alternate timeline where J.J. Abrams is actually capable of committing to it in definite terms? Anyway, he’s finally made the logical choice; now the franchise is even more likely to live long and prosper. Like Captain James T. Kirk, J.J. Abrams belongs in the Captain’s director’s chair when it comes to Star Trek films. Whether he'll be involved in Star Trek's potential return to the small screen, though, is yet to be seen.)

Strangely, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy also has some parallels with Justin Lin’s Fast Five. They’re both set in a largely male-driven, dangerous, morally ambiguous world, with some degree of shifting allegiances. Except that Fast Five also has incredible action sequences, plus a great sense of found family. In Whedonverse terms, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is (early) Dollhouse (cerebral, morally grey, with characters working together, but not necessarily in the smoothest or healthiest of ways), whereas Fast Five is Firefly/Serenity (warm, emotional, with the characters coming together to form a found family).

While expertly crafted, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is far less entertaining than the likes of Fast Five, X-Men: First Class, Transformers 3, Harry Potter, and Captain America.

The likes of Joe Wright’s Hanna and Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes show how virtuoso direction can make a film exhilarating, rather than simply a laudable effort.

However, perhaps it’s slightly artificial to compare Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to recent films, considering that it’s a throwback to the sparse, bleak seventies style of filmmaking. Though it creates a believable world of its own, when considered as a film released now, it feels somewhat out of time. Of course, this presumably won’t be a problem, and may even seem refreshing, for viewers with a taste for these sensibilities, but for viewers who prefer action-ier fare (not such a mindless preference as many critics would have you believe), it’s underwhelming. However, perhaps the entertainment value of the film has the potential to improve significantly on a second viewing, like with Christopher Nolan's similarly serious, complex, and well-crafted The Prestige.

By contrast to many films released today, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a restrained, old-fashioned, cerebral, demanding spy thriller. As such, it’s elegantly, meticulously executed, though for the awesomeness of bombastic, populist, slam-bang entertainment, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is released tomorrow, September 16, 2011 in the UK, and on December 9, 2011 in the US.

3 stars

See also:

Warrior review


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