More of a period piece than a suspenseful thriller, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” relies on a war of words rather than bullets. The antithesis of action romps like the “Bourne” films, it has captured the eye of critics, but the general public may find it too slow-paced for their taste.
Based on the classic novel of the same name, the international thriller is set at the height of the Cold War years of the mid-20th Century. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a disgraced British spy, is rehired in secret by his government, which fears that the British Secret Intelligence Service, a.k.a. MI-6, has been compromised by a double agent working for the Soviets. (Synopsis by Focus Features)
You know you are in trouble when the screening of a film comes with a three-page information card to explain the terms and plot. Therein lays the greatest flaw of this adaptation. There is far too much source material to cram into a two-hour movie. Much like the last few “Harry Potter” movies, the audience’s ability to follow the plot is largely reliant on their knowledge of the book. For something as widely read as “Harry Potter,” it works. In this case, it doesn’t.
Coupled with the complex storyline is a pacing closer to one of Michael Haneke’s typical films than the typical thriller at the American box office. Following the realism of espionage requires the patience of a saint. When the climax comes, it does generate excitement and wraps the film up nicely. Whether the payoff is worth the wait is dependent on your tolerance for mental exercise.
Haneke’s previous, first film, “Let the Right One In” (previously reviewed) redefined the vampire horror genre. While he takes a page out of that film with the slow build to the climax, there was a constant sense of development in that earlier film. In “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the build does not flow as smoothly, often getting muddled in the confusing terminology and British-ness. What works is the detail for the period the film is set. In the same way that “Mad Men” captures an era, this film immediately immerses you in Cold War Britain. Visually, it is perfection.
Gary Oldman is the highlight of a strong cast. Giving the role a graceful understatement, there is never a moment in which you doubt that he is the smartest guy in the room. When tension is found in the screenplay, it is magnified by Oldman’s domineering presence.
This is a film that critics are going to love because it is complex, thoughtful, and paced like a European film. Unfortunately, most general audiences are going to find it too complex and too slow moving to enjoy. This isn’t “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” There are no action scenes or complex gadgets. Deep down this is a very good film, but for the average person it is too far down the rabbit hole.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: Rent it. It is a good film, but its appeal is limited to a select audience.
TWO AND A HALF STARS out of four.
Directed by Tomas Alfredson. Written by John Le Carré
Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity, and language.
Runtime: 2 hr. 8 min.