Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Movie takes a while to digest

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”
Studio Canal
2 hours, 7 minutes

I may come off as a little defensive saying this, but I really don’t mind it if a movie has a slow build and very limited action. And I think I’ve seen enough movies to be able to handle something a little cerebral. That said, my watching of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” took two days because the first time I nodded off 20 minutes in.


It could be the genre, I suppose. I like spy movies, but serious spy movies, by authors like Le Carré, for example, always seem a tad dense. I tried “The Tailor of Panama” and couldn’t get into it. I tried “The Good Shepherd” and just lost interest. And “Tinker, Tailor?” It left me feeling antsy and confused, with occasional flashes of understanding that would recede almost as quickly as they’d come. I found myself whispering — to myself; my wife, who had to get up early, bailed much sooner than I did — “Who is that guy?” “Why are they after him?” “Is that the same guy from before? Oh, no. He’s Russian.”

The story begins in the early 1970s, in Hungary, with Mark Strong playing an aging envoy on a super-secret mission. His goal, as I understand it, was to put the screws to a low-level Hungarian military officer in order to find out the identity of a suspected Soviet mole in the upper echelon of the Circus. The Circus, as I quickly gathered, is the nickname for the British Intelligence Agency, MI6.

Things don’t go so well, unfortunately. Our spy arrives to meet his contact and finds himself ambushed and, in the ensuing melee, shot. At this point the story jumps forward several years, and this is where things start really getting confusing. The story flashes forward and back repeatedly, often without any clarifying clues. Since everyone looks pretty much the same in the past as the present, it becomes pretty difficult to tell when each particular scene is taking place.

Gary Oldman, as protagonist George Smiley, is called in out of retirement to take up the search for the mole. Smiley is kind of the anti-Bond — quiet, unassuming, thoughtful — but Oldman manages to play him with an intensity that gives the character a real weightiness. Smiley recruits a couple of assistants, and with the help of a disgraced company assassin, manages to piece together a chain of events that eventually lead him to the guilty party. Unfortunately, that chain of events was far less obvious to me and I was pretty lost until, suddenly, the mole was revealed at the end. “Oh,” I thought. “Well, I guess that makes sense ... I guess.”

Actually, given a few days and time to reflect, the movie makes much more sense than it did when I was watching it. There are still a few characters whose place in the grand scheme I can’t quite make out, but overall the story is now clear. And as a result, the movie is better in my memory than it was watching it. I see complex relationships that I missed because I was trying to keep up with the story. The acting is all excellent, each character not only turning in great performances, but revealing a deep melancholy.

Again, in retrospect, there’s an undercurrent of sadness to the story when you realize that all the people involved were part of a family of sorts, and that aging and a new generation of operatives have pushed the old ways aside. The vitality they once possessed is gone, though Smiley has a chance to regain it. But at what cost? It’s all very interesting and subtle in my mind, but that’s a difficult recommendation to give. “Go ahead and watch it — you won’t really enjoy it now, but give it a few days and it’ll seem really good.”

As you surely inferred from the fact that this movie took two days to watch, “Tinker, Tailor,” isn’t playing at your local cineplex. This week saw a new “American Pie” movie that no one asked for, and a re-release of “Titanic” in 3D. I liked “Titanic” when I saw it 15 years ago, and I’m sure it would still stand up just fine. I just couldn’t bring myself to go for the 3D. I may be forced to board that ship this week, however, when the only new film on the docket is the horrendous looking “Three Stooges.” That concept was marginal in the 30s when people needed extreme slapstick to distract them from the dustbowl. It just looks nauseating today.

Needless to say I won’t be watching that movie. Talk about the antithesis to the film I just watched. I’ll take a movie that’s dense to point of frustration any day over one that makes me feel like a stooge.
Grade: C+ (although in my memory it’s a strong B+).

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is rated R for language, brief violence, and sexuality.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.


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