December 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm #35870
This along with The Artist is the strongest review Kenny Turan of the LATimes has written for an English language non-doc this year.
“An enormously impressive piece of work”
By Kenneth Turan,
Los Angeles Times Film Critic
The question at the heart of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is simplicity
itself: Is there a Soviet secret agent at the very highest echelons of British
intelligence? Getting to the answer, however, couldn’t be more deliciously,
thrillingly, brilliantly complex.
Starring a surprising Gary Oldman
and masterfully directed by Tomas Alfredson, “Tinker Tailor” comes by that
complexity honestly, courtesy of the subtle, allusive 1974 John le Carré novel
set in a merciless espionage world where trust is an illusion and nothing is
remotely what it seems. This is a film to which very close attention must be
paid, but the rewards of doing so are considerable.
That’s because Swedish director Alfredson, who created a stir with his
the Right One In,” has come up with a film that is endlessly rich in
incident, atmosphere and personality, a film that leaves us hanging on by the
barest skin of our teeth as we try to figure out who is doing what to whom and
why. The spy trade doesn’t get much more exciting than this.
Alfredson has accomplished all this in the face of considerable obstacles.
Not only is Le Carré’s book anything but straightforward, but it’s already been
made into a six-hour British miniseries starring an impeccable Alec
Guinness as inscrutable protagonist George Smiley, a performance so potent
that readers of what became a Cold War trilogy inevitably had the actor in their
Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan were equal to the first
part of the challenge, artfully compressing Le Carré’s story — the novelist
compared it to turning a cow into a bouillon cube — while understanding that in
this world what is unspoken is as important as what is said.
Alfredson, for his part, has seen to it that “Tinker Tailor” moves along at a
fast-paced, almost electrifying clip. Blessed with a superb ensemble cast, he
displays a gift for authenticity and honesty in performance plus an almost
uncanny feeling for atmosphere and mood, for letting the pitiless, almost
Scandinavian gloom of this tawdry, amoral universe seep into its physical
objects. As the gifted cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, an artist with the
film’s drab, faded grays and browns, told American Cinematographer magazine, “It
is a melancholic world set in small rooms, drenched in nicotine and bureaucratic
Placing Oldman in the center of this universe was not an obvious choice, but
it has played out superbly. For though George Smiley has, in Le Carré’s words,
an espionage past “so complex that even he himself could not remember all the
enemies he might have made,” he is thoroughly lackluster in appearance, “one of
London’s meek who do not inherit the earth.”
Given that, as he himself says, Oldman is “often asked to play kinetic,
frenetic characters,” he was “thrilled to be asked to play someone still.” He
threw himself into the Smiley role, for instance reportedly trying on 50 pairs
of vintage eyeglasses at Old Focals in Pasadena before selecting just the right
Oldman’s Smiley, so correct he even swims with those glasses on, is a man who
by all appearances is tired, colorless and defeated, the drab epitome of the
unthreatening drone with an unreliable wife thrown into the bargain. But in his
methodical and imperturbable way, Smiley is a master at his game, someone you
underestimate at your peril, and Oldman’s quietly commanding performance fully
understands the power inherent in restraint.
It’s not Smiley we meet first in 1973’s London but his superior, Control (John Hurt at his
best), who opens his door in the dead of night to top operative Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong).
“You weren’t followed?” are the first anxious words he says, and the game is at
Control sends Prideaux to Hungary (changed from the book’s Czechoslovakia) to
meet with a general who is thinking of defecting. The general claims to know the
name of a double agent or mole the Soviets have placed at the top level of
British intelligence, called the Circus by insiders, and Control very much wants
Like everything else in “Tinker Tailor,” that trip does not go as planned,
and both Control and Smiley, who is his number two, are forced out of the Circus
and into early retirement. With its savage bureaucratic infighting and bitter
turf battles, the Circus was hardly Eden, but it is the only world Smiley has
Then, unexpectedly, senior government official Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney)
calls Smiley back into the game. Lacon confirms what Control suspected: The mole
exists. But who is he, and how does he operate?
Aided by the younger Peter Guillam (Benedict
Cumberbatch), Smiley is given the almost impossible task of deciding which
of the main suspects identified by Control, who gave the men the nursery rhyme
nicknames that give the novel its title, is the Soviet mole.
Was it Percy Alleline (Toby Jones),
a.k.a. Tinker, the new head of the Circus? Bill Haydon (Colin Firth),
a.k.a. Tailor, who replaced Smiley? Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), a.k.a. Soldier? Or
someone else entirely. Whoever it is, Smiley knows that the implacable hand of
preeminent spy master, is likely behind it all.
Complex as this may sound, it is only the merest outline of the beginning of
perhaps the great spy tale of our time. To see a novel of this level of quality
getting the writing, directing and acting it deserves is beyond heartening.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is an enormously impressive piece of work, and
that’s news too good to stay secret for long.December 8, 2011 at 4:18 pm #35871
This film (early on – more reviews to come, but 18 so far) has the highest score of any contending films – better even than The Artist and Moneyball 88. More impressively, its LOWEST score is 75.
I know the tone on this board has been really down on this, but it may turn out to be a significant contender.
I wonder if not showing at Toronto worked against this – most of the reaction so far has come from Oscar bloggers, not critics. The latter clearly like the film more than the former.December 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm #35872
Here’s my initial review of this film:
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) – director: Tomas Alfredson
Despite a competent director and stellar cast, this film is very disappointing. Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan adapted their script from John le Carre’s widly popular novel. Unfortunately, O’Connor and Straughan’s convoluted screenplay sinks the film. All of the characters are underdeveloped and there are many stretches where the film is just boring. Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones and the rest of the cast do the best they can with the material, but solid acting can’t save this unremarkable film.
MY GRADE: D
I think this will be one of those films were critics and audiences are dead split. I understand why a lot of critics like TTSS; it’s highbrow and has snob appeal.December 8, 2011 at 5:28 pm #35873
Great NYT review; likes Oldman a lot
The Spy Who Emerged From the Fog
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Dread throbs like a heartbeat in “Tinker,
Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” a superb new adaptation of the 1974 spy novel by John
le Carré. It’s a deep pulse that maintains its insistent rhythm throughout
the film’s murmured conversations, life-and-death office intrigues, violence and
yearning loves. The throbbing does a number on your nervous system — this is a
movie you watch on high alert — and brings you into the state of mind that can
feel like a state of siege and goes by the name of British secret service, or
just the Circus. For those inside the intelligence service, like George Smiley,
played with delicacy and understated power by Gary
Oldman, knowledge is power, but so too is fear.
The story, skillfully mined from Mr. le Carré’s labyrinthine book and set in
1973, is a pleasurably sly and involving puzzler — a mystery about mysteries
within mysteries. The head of the service, known as Control (John Hurt),
believes that there’s a Soviet agent, a mole, among the agency’s elite. His main
suspects include his closest aide, Smiley, along with Percy Alleline (Toby
Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Bill
Firth). To find the mole, Control secretly sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong),
who runs the agency’s scalp hunters (field agents with dirty, sometimes bloodied
hands), to Hungary to retrieve information. But Prideaux, in an agonizing
botch-up, is shot, and Control, already politically weak, is fired along with
Mr. le Carré’s seventh novel and the first in his Karla trilogy, “Tinker,
Tailor” is set against a geopolitical (and movie) moment that is almost
quaintly, reassuringly old-fashioned, a time when enemy agents had names like
Boris, and a red flag with a hammer and sickle made the ideological and
political stakes clear. It’s a world of secrets and lies, shadows and light,
illusions and sordid truths, loyalties and perverse betrayals (it could be
called “Enemies, a Love Story”) that the director Tomas Alfredson conjures up in
the film’s uneasy opening in Control’s apartment, a cluttered warren fogged over
by cigarette smoke. “There’s a rotten apple,” Control says to Prideaux, drawing
on a cigarette as he explains his theory about the mole, the folds in Mr. Hurt’s
magnificent face sagging a bit lower.
That face, a crevassed landscape that suggests sorrow and history, has the
granitic grandeur of W. H. Auden in his later
life. In tandem with Mr. Hurt’s sonorously melancholic voice (and its useful
undertones of hysteria), it is a face that, when used by a filmmaker like Mr.
Alfredson, speaks volumes about a character who would otherwise take reams of
written dialogue to discover. But unlike the 1979 British
television version with Alec Guinness that ran a dutiful 350 minutes, Mr.
Alfredson doesn’t enjoy the luxury of literalness. Instead, working from Bridget
O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s intelligent script, this terrifically talented
director (“Let the Right One In”)
distills the novel’s essence, finding images, as with the Circus’s
chessboardlike walls, that express what the film’s words and characters don’t.
Smiley, who doesn’t say a word until 18 minutes in (“I’m retired”), re-enters
the spy game at the behest of a government minister, Oliver Lacon (Simon
McBurney). Lacon has received alarming information from Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy),
another scalp hunter, who has met a Soviet woman, Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova),
with apparent knowledge of the mole. Using Tarr’s lead and with the help of a
trusted Circus agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley begins
ferreting out the mole, spying on the spies. He also uncovers an operation
called Witchcraft and runs up against an arch-villain, Karla, a Soviet
intelligence officer, in an almost ruthlessly unromantic vision of empire dreams
that unfolds in sad, grubby rooms where the flowered wallpaper is sometimes
splashed with blood.
Despite that brutality, “Tinker, Tailor” is suffused with longing and love —
for a country, a cause, a lover, a father — a theme that poignantly surfaces at
a boys’ school where Prideaux re-emerges and which, in its cloistered quality,
mirrors both the big boys’ club that is the Circus and recalls another school
that haunts the narrative. “Tinker, Tailor” is partly based on the case of Kim
Philby, one of a
handful of British spies and Cambridge University alumni who were recruited
by the Soviets in the 1930s. (Mr. le Carré, born David John Moore Cornwell, was
a British spy whose cover was blown by Philby.) At the school Prideaux meets a
lonely student, Bill Roach (William Haddock), a moon-faced outsider whom
Prideaux calls “a good watcher,” a description that, given the sadness that
cloaks the story’s many watchers, feels chilling.
First among the watchers, of course, is Smiley, the anti-Bond described by
Mr. le Carré in “Tinker, Tailor” as looking like “one of London’s meek who do
not inherit the earth.” Since the 1979 mini-series, the character has been
synonymous with Guinness’s performance, as Mr. le Carré has acknowledged.
(Guinness resumed the role in the 1982 mini-series “Smiley’s
People.”) Mr. Oldman, now mostly known for his small, sharp turns in big
movies, playing Harry
Potter’s godfather, Sirius Black, and James Gordon in the Batman movies,
wisely doesn’t reinvent Smiley. Rather — as hinted in an early scene of Smiley
buying the kind of oversize eyeglasses that Guinness wore — he and Mr. Alfredson
have opted to build on the original interpretation, using it as a foundational
text. (Guinness’s turn is the Torah; Mr. Oldman’s the Talmud.)
It’s a fascinatingly gripping performance that doesn’t so much command the
screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it
over incrementally, an occupation that echoes Smiley’s steady incursion into the
mole’s lair. Again and again, as he does with the other watchers, Mr. Alfredson
places Smiley on one side of a window, looking out at a world that he both
belongs to and remains very much outside of. There’s a sense throughout that
Smiley, preoccupied with thoughts of his errant, faithless wife, Ann (Katrina
Vasilieva, never viewed in full), doesn’t just live in a place apart but also in
a kind of dream. Yet like the old Circus — a lost world seen in the intermittent
flashbacks to a holiday party that, when pieced together, reveal so much,
including who loved whom and who was betrayed — Ann is an illusion that Smiley
fights for.December 8, 2011 at 5:28 pm #35874
What do you think of Oldman’s chances for a nom DD?December 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm #35875
For what it’s worth, as a tea leaf about some industry expectation, the Arclight in Hollywood – the biggest grossing theatre in the country – is giving its premiere screen to this (the Dome) while Young Adult is also playing there as well.
We’ll see it performs, but I’m told it is initially very strong.December 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm #35876
Wasn’t there a shooting near the Arc Light today?December 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm #35877
Sure was – my source tells me it had minimal impact (shows already underway, things apparently cleared up so it wasn’t a major problem)December 12, 2011 at 5:36 am #35878
Saw it last night at the AMC theater in East Village. Absolutely loved it. Thought the pace was perfect to create the tension. Riveting and affecting; Alfredsson did a great job. The use of the song at the end was inspired.
The acting was top notch across the board. Not sure what Oldman’s status is lke in the race but he gave a masterclass. Shame that the supporting actors probably did not get enough screen time individually to warrant a nom but there was not a single weak link. Firth and Strong were my favourites; communicated a lot with very little.
Full house for a Sunday night 6pm screening. Most seemed pretty into the movie. Get the feeling that people don’t really want to push another Brit film this year but I hope this one gets the attention it deserves. Really well made – set and costume design was fantastic and amazing to think they did it for 30 million.December 19, 2011 at 9:03 pm #35880
Just saw this (at a SAG screening – sort of late in the day for that, no?) – my new favorite 2011 US release, ahead of Poetry, Melancholia and Hugo. I expected it to be good, but not this good – a bravura exercise in style and direction, impeccably crafted and acted, and though no, I didn’t get every last plot point, it did hold together, make sense, and end brilliantly.December 20, 2011 at 4:21 pm #35881
Just saw this (at a SAG screening – sort of late in the day for that, no?) – my new favorite 2011 US release, ahead of Poetry, Melancholia and Hugo. I expected it to be good, but not this good – a bravura exercise in style and direction, impeccably crafted and acted, and though no, I didn’t get every last plot point, it did hold together, make sense, and end brilliantly.
I had a problem with the first plot points too. The second and third. All the way through to the last one. My friend and I thought we got the general gist of it, until it was suggested later that, no, we didn’t get that either. I, like you, admire its style, but found its story too impenetrable — and avoidably so — to embrace it fully.December 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm #35882
I respect that, and expect a lot of people will react the same.
Perhaps my familiarity with the Le Carre/Smiley world from reading many of his novels and having seen all film and TV adaptations made it easier for me, as well as being prepared up from to pay extraordinarily close attention. And even then, what I might have missed was secondary to the overall unsettling and never what it seems to be world that the characters (although not ultimately Smiley) feel while dealing with all the confusion.
Something less than a day after seeing it, my feelings though toward it are even stronger than first reaction.December 20, 2011 at 6:06 pm #35883
I never read the novel, or anything by Le Carre. My only previous exposure to him was “The Constant Gardener,” which ended up my favorite film of 2005. That film had similar complexity but far greater clarity.
I suspect that reading the novel makes all the difference. I have no doubt I would have enjoyed the film much more greatly if I had such a road map. Being well versed in its story, you could focus on the execution, while trying to muddle through the story broke the spell of its execution for me.
I’m very surprised by the film’s near-unanimous praise, not because its a bad film, per se, but because it’s so confusing. I’m no genius, but I’m no dummy either, and it’s hard to believe more critics didn’t get as stuck on it as I did. I wonder if sometimes critics are afraid to admit they didn’t get it, and I’m only half-kidding about that. I’ve started skimming some of the reviews, and only Roger Ebert so far admits outright that he wasn’t following it. Owen Gleiberman called it “borderline incomprehensible,” but then essentially praised it for being so.
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