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Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy: Not Once, Watch Twice

By Jim Rohner · December 13, 2011

The time is 1973, the height of the Cold War.  The place is Budapest, Hungary.  The situation is clandestine.  Supposedly. 

British intelligence agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) has been charged by his superior, Control (John Hurt), to meet with a Russian operative and investigate the legitimacy of claims that a Soviet mole has infiltrated the highest echelons of MI6.  The meeting, which takes place in a seemingly idyllic village square, is saturated with paranoia: the waiter is perspiring and jittery; figures on the periphery cast lingering glances; miscellaneous background din has Prideaux looking over his shoulder.  With very few words exchanged and very few actions unfolding, instinct kicks in and Prideaux attempts an escape.  In a heartbeat a gun has been drawn and the British agent lies bleeding and motionless on the cobblestone ground.

The resultant fallout sees Control forced into resignation along with his colleague, espionage veteran, George Smiley (Gary Oldman).  Soon after, Control passes away and the return of a deep uncover agent, Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy), is accompanied by the revelation that he has information about the identity of the mole.  Smiley is asked to return and investigate the claims, but in the world of professional espionage, the shadow of doubt is cast over everything. 

Tarr, for instance, has been declared a rogue agent by "The Circus," the inner circle of British intelligence to which Smiley is returning.  The Circus is in charge of Operation Witchcraft, the seemingly successful operation involving the exchange of information with Soviet spies.  But questions are raised about the reliability of The Circus and their conclusions especially considering the personal history Smiley has with its members and the fact that Control suspected each individual member, all of whom he has given nicknames: the Tinker, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); the Tailor, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); the Soldier, Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds); and the Poor Man, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

That, in a nutshell, is the skeletal structure of the endlessly dense exercise in paying attention known as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I'm patting myself on the back for even being able to decipher that little. Based on the novel by John le Carre, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a little over 2 hours of plot about a complicated and layered topic that the BBC originally deemed worthy of a 7-hour miniseries.  The result is a film that keeps the characters constantly confused about loyalty and allegiances and the audience constantly confused about what's going, who's doing what and why.  Credit is due to a film and filmmakers who respect the audience enough not to hand us narrative bullet points on a silver platter, but dropping us into the middle of such a dense conflict and hitting the ground running can and is a frustrating experience from beginning to end.

For 127 minutes, we wade through espionage jargon, code names and callbacks without a single scene of explanations or clarifications.  Adding to the enigma are the plethora of flashbacks and jumps between chronology that serve to move the film forward even as our minds reel to catch up with what we're seeing, how it fits in with what we've seen before, and what it could possibly all be building to.  On one hand, I have to admire a film where the viewing experience perfectly emulates the mood and tone that the characters experience – if Smiley is in the dark, why shouldn't we be? – but unless you've read the novel or worked within British intelligence during the 1970s, I'd say there's no way you can take in all Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has to offer in a single viewing.

And yet, while frustration and confusion accompany the viewing experience, so do awe and intensity.  Though I frequently found myself wondering what was going on, I never tuned out; I was anxious to see what was coming next, eager to see what the filmmakers had in store because at the very least, the surface level of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is absolutely breathtaking. 

Cinema from the 1970s is often associated with a grit and rawness and while you won't see a hint of grain on screen, the cinematography of Hoyt Van Hoytema – collaborating again with director Tomas Alfredson after Let the Right One In – lends an ominous tone of 70s distrust to an already paranoid atmosphere.  The lighting, both interior and exterior, constantly recalls an overcast sky, never dark enough to obscure the important details and always sufficient in revealing the characters as men who likely sleep very little carrying around such tremendous intellectual burdens. 

These men, which include Stephen Graham and Benedict Cumberbatch on top of the previously mentioned super group, are the emotional anchors and primary engagement for the audience.  With phenomenal performances from top to bottom, the combination of the cast's gravity and the score to which they march – courtesy of Oscar-nominee Alberto Iglesias – always key us in to the fact that something or someone is worth noting or remembering even if we may not be sure why.  Even if I wasn't entirely confident I knew what was going on; subconsciously I knew that what I was seeing was important.  This had less to with my intelligence (as people who know me can attest) and more to do with Tomas Alfredson's ability to see the film as the whole and plant the right seeds with any and every component available to him be it score, shot selection, or performance. 

While Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may not seem immediately appealing, it's better to look at the viewing as an investment, something that'll pay off in the future with a little bit more effort.  In this case, that effort implies a second viewing and if the prospect of better understanding one of the most intelligent films of the year isn't draw enough for you, then a second go around with potentially the best ensemble cast should justify the extra expense.