Mark Reviews Movies

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Cast: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Mark Strong, David Dencik, Ciarán Hinds, Kathy Burke

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 12/9/11 (limited); 12/16/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 16, 2011

Is it lonelier to be on the outside or on the inside? That is the question playing out in between a hunt for a mole in the upper levels of the British Secret Intelligence Service, a.k.a. MI6, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's a far more intriguing query than the movie's central one—that of the identity of the mole—a concern so insignificant to the movie's main thematic attention that to call the final revelation an anticlimax would be an unearned compliment.

This, of course, raises another question: Does the identity of the mole even matter? The short answer is that it does, otherwise screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan (adapting the novel by John le Carré) would not devote so much time to the buildup. The long answer is that it does not, as director Tomas Alfredson seems far more interested in the isolation of these men, who sacrifice their potential personal lives for the devotion to their professional ones. The opening titles run over a series of expositional points, documenting the change in power at MI6, or—as those on inside lovingly dub it—the "Circus, after the movie's prologue of a failed mission in Budapest that leaves a young mother dead (There is something unnerving about how little attention is paid to her and the baby left behind—part of the cold nature of the game) and an agent shot in the back.

The key to the sequence is not the background (Alfredson uses some subtle associative tricks to establish most of the circumstantial information during the course of the central narrative) but instead the effect upon the movie's protagonist. He moves from a position of power to a wordless farewell with his old boss to an empty house, where he piles the mail addressed to his absent wife on the mantle. He stares into the space ahead of him without any sense of emotion; internally, he essentially mirrors the home—void of anything worthwhile.

He is George Smiley (Gary Oldman), formerly the second-in-command at the Circus, and about a year after he and his boss were forcibly retired from service, he is brought back into unofficial service with the Intelligence agency after an agent, who was previously considered to have defected to the Soviet Union, calls his old boss Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to inform him that a mole has been passing "treasure" (information) to the Kremlin for years. Given the amount of time the mole has been operating within the Circus, it must be someone from Smiley's generation.

Smiley's old superior, simply known as "Control" (John Hurt), is dead; He had his own suspicions and even a list of suspects with codenames attached to them. There's Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), whom Control named "Tinker," currently the head of the Circus. "Tailor" is Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), a consummate womanizer who may be partially responsible for Smiley's separation from his wife. Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) is "Soldier," and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) is "Poorman." When Smiley discovers that he himself was on Control's short list of possible moles, his reaction is less surprise than acceptance; if there is any surprise in that stone face (Oldman's unruffled performance is a master study in stillness), it is simply from the realization of how little he knew about his former boss.

The secrets unravel quickly as Smiley finds the right strings to pull. Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the agent shot in Budapest, is teaching at a school in the country, and he has a story of how ruthless the mole's contact at the Kremlin, a mysterious Soviet Intelligence officer known only as "Karla," is. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), the agent who supposedly defected, tells Smiley his own tale of a mistaken contact, a woman kidnapped, and discovery of dead bodies ("I couldn't have done it better myself," he eerily says, recalling finding the corpse of a man torn apart from the throat up). Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), a researcher who was fired shortly after Smiley left, spends some of her time with Smiley remembering how things used to be. "Don't come back if it's bad," she orders him; she would rather keep her memories of the "good times"—a real war in which people could be proud of their actions.

It's a gloomy world Alfredson conveys in these moments. Even the headquarters of the Circus, where Guillam (who, in one scene, ends the relationship with his live-in partner—a loose end, as Smiley would call him) attempts to sneak documents from under the noses of his superiors to Smiley, is a cold, hollow location. A section of the floor opens to the levels above and below; the room in which the upper echelons of power discuss matters of importance is a soundproof booth with the walls appearing to close in upon the occupants.

The initial question is a trick one, of course. It does not matter whether one is on the inside or the outside of the Circus; loneliness is part of the bargain. Alfredson's focus on this inescapable fact gives Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a human heartbeat that still cannot overwhelm the less involving mechanics of the mystery.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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