Cold War spy games have never looked so depressing.
John Le Carre has always been an author who I have wanted to like more than I actually do. I’ve plowed through more than a handful of his books and have still yet to find one that I could take to friend and recommend to them while looking them straight in the eye. For those out there who are borderline obsessed with Cold War spy games I’m sure he is a Godsend but to this critic he is so consumed by that subject matter that his stories always end up in realm where human emotion doesn’t really exist. Tomas Alfredson directs this new take on his 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and in doing so transfers all of those problems into his beautiful looking though entirely soulless film. We get lots of paranoia over who is spying on whom for whom and it takes place at a time when the whole world seemed preoccupied with those questions. And yet I left feeling as though I had just listen to an old man dither on about how exciting his job was back in the day while under the impression that his story was somehow inherently interesting.
The plot is a tangled mess but in short George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is coaxed out of retirement to try and find a Soviet mole even though he was part of a botched mission in Hungary that left a fellow agent shot in the back and tortured. I might point out here that in the book the mission took place in Czechoslovakia but since the kids have no idea what that is it had to be changed to somewhere that some of them had considered studying abroad in. At the focus of his investigation are four very highly ranked members of British Intelligence who are engaged in their own espionage drama. Another suspected mole, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), is the one banging the drum about the purported leak and he quickly becomes one of George’s key allies. The movie is filled with strong, stoic male actors but Toby Jones steals the show as Percy, the top dog and a man who does himself no favors by trumpeting his secret files, codenamed “Witchcraft”, while not divulging how he came across them. Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds are also excellent, why wouldn’t they be, but the assumption is that Focus Features believes in Oldman’s performance more than anything. It’s quality stuff but they may have been a bit ambitious releasing it in the midst of Oscar season because there is no way he’ll be taking home any awards this year.
The character Ricki is the best thing going here and that is because he is the only one we can truly connect to. He has thoughts that don’t involve the Russians or spying or highly classified secrets, his ultimate goal throughout is to get out and start a family. Of course he is in the game all the same but I think seducing a beautiful blond just to get ahead in life is something that we can get on board with. During those sequences Alfredson shows signs of having a storytellers touch but for the most part the man is all about the atmosphere he creates and he fixates on that to the detriment of everything else. It’s a problem that marked up his superior last outing Let the Right One In and it really submarines this endeavor. He does fit in nicely with the rest of this season’s Oscar bait as high style seems to be the order of the day, and to be fair lots of fans and critics are really enjoying this one, but to me it had all the warmth of an overly long work day in a desolate part of town.
The failure of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may, however, belong to the medium more than the artist. Remember that the 127 minutes of screen time here are based on the 400 pages found within the book, and also remember that we have been spoiled for the last decade or so by the rise of long form TV. Just a few months ago we were treated to The Hour on BBC America and it truly did unearth some deep human truths and it did so while also painting a portrait of a similar time and place. But they had six hours at their disposal. One hopes that in the future the two hour moving picture can find a way to still tell gripping stories that speak to us on a profound level but the fear is that eventually it will totally taken over by giant robots and caped superheroes. The frustrating thing here is that this is the type of entertainment I crave; nuanced, thoughtful, grounded. It had the potential to be infinitely more stimulating that James Bond or Alias or any other run of the mill espionage flick but somehow the source material was too much for the filmmakers to handle. Hopefully it gets better after a second and third viewing, and after watching the British mini-series (5 and a half hours!) and reading the book, but who, after taking in this blunder would find the story worth that kind of investment?
Director: Tomas Alfredson Notable Cast: Gary Oldman, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy Writer(s): Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan based on the novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by John le Carre