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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Thrills of Realistic Spy Depiction

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy serves as a terrific reminder to American audiences just how inferior their government thrillers are. Usually our heroes make lame quips as increasingly frenetic action gives way to uncontainable explosions. The Brits, meanwhile, have Gary Oldman: silent, sophisticated, sly. The violence takes place in the shadows, off-camera. The explosions are nowhere to be found. Here, dossier files and telegraphs are the weapons in life-or-death pursuits. Think it sounds boring? Far from it– films like Transformers attempt to overwhelm audiences into feeling tension. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy quietly and intelligently earns it.

It’s the early 1970s. Great Britain, like much of the world, is teetering on the brink of Cold War, and its intelligence agency—referred to as “the Circus”—is focused on the Soviets. The head of the Circus, Control (John Hurt) sends Jim (Mark Strong) on a mission to Hungary, which goes awry, resulting in Jim getting shot, an international incident, and forced retirement for Control and his second-in-command, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Years later, the new head of the Circus, Percy (Toby Jones), his second-in-command Bill (Colin Firth), and two other powerful members of intelligence, Roy (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby (David Dencik), desire to exchange intel with the Americans in order to move up in the scheme of things. Meanwhile, the government calls in Smiley– agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) has alleged that he discovered the existence of a mole high up in the Circus who reports to Karla, the head of Russian spy activities, and they want Smiley to find out who it is. With the help of agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), he investigates the Circus from the inside.

Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish director of Let The Right One In, knows a thing or two about pacing. Periods of dreadful silence, stillness, and apparent inactivity were always Hitchcock’s weapons of choice. Smiley doesn’t shoot people or engage in physical combat; he sits, he listens, he asks the right question when necessary. The awareness of the presence of the mole is all the film needs: show what’s at stake, make clear the existence of the unknown obstacle. It’s storytelling 101. The common complaint I’ve heard regarding this film is that it’s “confusing”– in reality, I found it far easier to understand than most thrillers. Perhaps audiences are too trained to have directors hold their hand and dumb down their films with exposition or unnecessary violence.

Furthermore, this movie is gorgeous. Lock this in for nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design, and if it goes unnoticed in those categories, then the Academy’s screeners must have gotten lost in the mail. The internal and external imagery of the Circus is vivid– geography is yet another element this movie has in spades over the majority of American thrillers. The color palette, the placement of the camera, the layouts of the various offices, libraries, and hotel rooms in which the action takes place: all are fully realized in ways we don’t often see in this genre. The pattern on the wall in the Circus’s main meeting room is one of the more memorable images of 2011.

It really should go without saying that the cast, from top to bottom, is terrific. There’s a great sense of history between the characters developed, with even the smallest one-scene contributors making their monologues count. Standouts among the cast are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy as two younger spies who find themselves deeper involved in the proceedings than they wanted– a scene in the Circus following Cumberbatch is heart-pounding. Gary Oldman does his usual great work, here most restrained, intense, and sympathetic than ever. Most surprising is Mark Strong, usually the villain, playing a charismatic and heartfelt role, giving maybe the best performance of his career.

Then there’s the ending. Is it me, or are the endings of movies increasingly underwhelming nowadays? I can’t think of more than a handful with endings that left me excited or emotional. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s ending manages to leave me excited *and* emotional, both capturing the sense of completion yet fanning the flame of desire for a sequel (if ONLY these were the types of films that spun off sequels; instead, trailers for countless Madagascar films flood my vision). The film can be cold and meticulous, much like its characters are required to be, but I found there to be a strong pulse of life and tension running through the admittedly quiet proceedings. Most movies rely on the big-budget crashes, explosions, and effects to produce thrills—- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gave me the thrill of watching an intelligent and thoughtful film.

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~ by russellhainline on January 7, 2012.

6 Responses to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: The Thrills of Realistic Spy Depiction”

  1. great writing!

  2. Wonderful review! I have been dying to see this, but it doesn’t come out where I live until the 20th.

  3. Sold. I felt the same about The Good Shepherd, despite its pace.

  4. Thanks for another great review! By the way, I’ve nominated your blog for the Versatile Blogger award. Visit here:
    http://curtalefarm.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/versatility/ to read why I chose your blog and to get the directions on what to do next if you want to play! 🙂

  5. […] Zimmer, Rango 8. Roger Neill, Dave Palmer, & Brian Reitzell, Beginners 7. Alberto Iglesias, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 6. Steven Price, Attack the Block 5. Jonny Greenwood, We Need To Talk About Kevin 4. Patrick Doyle, […]

  6. Superb writeup. TTSS was the best movie for me last year. Just having read your review, I feel like pulling out the DVD and watching it again.:)

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