Friday, 24 August 2012

Film Review | Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Boasting an impressive "who's who" of British acting talent (the only thing missing is a recent incarnation of Doctor Who), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Tomas Alfredson's first feature following his international breakout picture, 2008's atmospheric and inventive Let The Right One In. It's also the first and (currently) only film to earn veteran Gary Oldman a Best Actor Oscar nod. With such talent loaded within it, Tinker Tailor... has a lot of expectation to live up to.

Set in the 1970s in the midst of the Cold War, the film focuses on an investigation into the existence of a Soviet mole at the top of the British secret service, known by those who work there as "The Circus". The operation is led by retired MI6 agent George Smiley (Oldman), brought back to work outside of the agency specifically to handle the investigation. Smiley's inquiries leads to him crossing several former colleagues, including recently appointed Chief of MI6 Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and his right hand man Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), as well as Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). One by one, Smiley narrows down his suspects, penetrating further into The Circus and its intricate web of secrets and relationships.

Moving from contemporary horror to Cold War espionage drama may not seem like the most obvious of moves for Alfredson, but it is clear from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy's opening frames that Alfredson is a capable and talented director. He ably creates a tangible atmosphere of tension and paranoia, whilst giving his film a highly polished and authentic feel. Alfredson's Circus is claustrophobic yet imposing, with both gloomy hallways and lurid meeting rooms making it the perfect place for such a complex and cerebral story to unfold. Alfredson's choice of cinematography is just as impressive away from the halls of MI6: Smiley's house is a labyrinth of shadows, a mortuary adorned with mementos of a life given over to the secret service; an early sequence taking place in Hungary is also beautifully shot, giving the locale a sense of both grandeur and menace.

The performances throughout the film are also comprehensively excellent. Oldman superbly inhabits the character of Smiley, bringing to mind the quiet servitude of his portrayal of James Gordon in Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy whilst at the same time giving Smiley an ethereal, almost ghostly quality, generating a performance both sympathetic and subtly unsettling. The supporting cast are also incredibly strong, with impressive performances from both more established names such as John Hurt and Colin Firth as well as younger talents such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy. Alfredson is blessed in the talent he has to hand, but also deserves credit for weaving the performances together expertly, whilst ensuring Oldman's Smiley is never overshadowed.

Despite the high quality performances and stellar direction from Alfredson, I finished Tinker Tailor... feeling somewhat unsatisfied. Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan's script is immensely complex and cabalistic, regularly to the point of being incomprehensible. Whilst I relish films which challenge on a cerebral and intellectual level, and applaud writers and directors who refuse to saturate their films with unnecessary exposition, Tinker Tailor... unfortunately goes too far in the other direction and too often becomes frustratingly obtuse.

The key issue behind the confusing nature of the plot appears to be in O'Connor and Straughan's adaptation of the source material, John Le Carré's 1974 novel. Essentially, the film attempts to fit too much into its two hour running time. Unless you are already familiar with Le Carré's book (which I'm not) you're likely to be somewhat bewildered, unable to mentally elaborate upon some plot details yourself. The abbreviated nature of the film also means that several characters are never given more than a handful of scenes, and some who wind up as key players in the story by the film's conclusion feel lacking in characterisation leading to a somewhat anticlimactic feel as the film reaches its end.

I really wanted to enjoy Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy more than I did. I also genuinely feel that it is a film that will entertain me more the second time round as the plot will already be familiar. There's no doubting the acting and directorial excellence on display throughout the film, but this ultimately feels like a film made for those who already know Le Carré's novel. If you don't, then the complex and purposely disjointed nature of the plot's relation is quite likely to mar your enjoyment of the film as a whole during at least your initial viewing.


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