I have wanted to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy since early summer when I saw its trailer while living in York. The film opened September 16 in England – three days after my return to the States. Imagine my disappointment when I searched for the U.S. release date, only to discover that the film would not reach American theaters until December 9! Even then, December 9 was a limited release date, and Portland theaters would not show the movie until the final weekend of 2011. Yep, December 30. After waiting half a year for this film, I entered the theater thinking it better be damn worth it.
It was. Director Tomas Alfredson’s bleak portrait of UK espionage during the 1970′s forces the viewer to slow down and appreciate silent shots and brief dialogue. Ex-spy George Smiley (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman) is asked to secretly work for ‘the Circus’ in order to find out which one of the four top British agents is leaking information to Russia: Tinker, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); Tailor, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); Solider, Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds); or Poor Man, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). (Yeah…the ‘Spy’ is in reference to Smiley himself, whose predecessor also suspected Smiley of potentially being the mole. ‘Poor Man’ doesn’t sound as catchy in the title, clearly.)
Tinker is a study in suspense. This is no Jason Bourne flick. Absent are chase scenes, flashy cars, fight sequences, and fly-on-the-wall cinematography. Instead the suspense slowly builds throughout as Smiley thinks his way through the case. Sure, he moves around secretly. He visits people who are supposed to be dead or wanted dead. But in each case, Smiley is methodical and deliberative. The film’s look echoes that disciplined (some might call it ‘dull’) pace. Overcast skies compliment the dreary browns and chilly grey hues of London. There is no bright lighting or bold colors; this story is not the place for them. The dialogue is startlingly sparse. In fact, Oldman does not have a single line for the first twenty minutes. Even then his lines are short. When he finally gives a monologue (nearly 2/3 through the film), it comes as a surprise – as though Smiley were not capable of uttering more than three sentences at a time. He is more than capable, however, and the monologue is one of the best I have seen on screen this past year.
Performances are nuanced and consistent – the work of seasoned, mature actors. Indeed, it was Tinker’s bevy of A-list British actors that first attracted me to the film. You have Oldman, Firth, Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and Mark Strong all in the same film. It’s every British film lover’s dream come true.
There is a caveat to Tinker: this is not a film for everyone. It requires patience. If you’re looking for a fast-paced action thriller, you will be sorely disappointed. If you go see Tinker to try and figure out which character is the mole, you will most likely emerge from the theater frustrated. In my opinion, Tinker is not a film for you to figure out. We get the privilege to watch Smiley solve the puzzle. The ‘clues’ that Smiley notices are often too subtle or invisible to us viewers. At the end, I didn’t really care which agent was the mole; I just wanted to know who it was. Some might find that insurmountably frustrating. I find it to be a deliberate, intentional choice by Alfredson to create a specific kind of spy film. It’s an experience in watching – allowing oneself to fully immerse into the story and be carried along for the ride. Most of the time, you’re riding blind. I found that exhilarating, and I accepted the journey due to the exquisite way in which Alfredson develops the narrative. Bottom line: Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is an acquired taste. If you appreciate meticulous, stoical, thoughtful suspense, this is your Holy Grail.
Playing at Fox Tower 10 in Portland, OR.