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Home » Culture and Criticism

9/31: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Submitted by on December 9, 2011 – 2:13 PM22 Comments

It has all the tools for a great movie: a good old-fashioned '70s-Cold-War-paranoia plot; a roster of fantastic actors and Hey, It's That Guys, including Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, and the dude who plays Capone in Boardwalk Empire, Stephen Graham, sporting a delightful (and also fugly) 'fro; and by turns murky and LSD-ish lighting and cinematography that make it fascinating to look at. The Christmas-party flashbacks in particular capture that nightmare feeling of being a bit too drunk at a party you had no choice but to attend, and the subplots you're a bit too muzzy to follow.

It's not as fascinating to watch, alas. It took me until nearly the end to figure out why the movie felt so sluggish, and of the two issues, one of them is mine, to wit: I expected to love it. I popped it in the player all, "Sweet, Parallax View 2011, let's do this." Raised expectations claim another victim, I guess.

The other issue is that, bottom line, the story is quite simple, but the script is constantly contriving to make it more complicated and opaque than it is. There's a mole in the upper echelons of British intelligence; it's one of four or five people; the spies all spy on each other; George Smiley (Gary Oldman, styled like the late great JT Walsh) is pulled out of forced retirement to re-spy on the spies. I mean, it's…a spy story. Build as many triple- and quadruple-crosses into it as you like; they're still just crosses, and not that complicated.

That may proceed from the source material; I read some Le Carré years and years ago, but don't remember it, really, and in general the lengthy obfuscation I mentioned before is typical for that genre and therefore not usually my thing. The film does do a solid job of showing us those crosses and backstabs where it can, instead of telling us about them in VO exposition dumps. Well, mostly; much of the ending is a "let's wrap this up neatly for the radio audience" speech, but there's also a sequence soundtracked by a peppy mod version of "La Mer" that's a lot of fun.

And the acting is phenomenal. Everyone's at least very good, but I got a charge out of two guys especially. I've noted elsewhere that I keep seeing Mark Strong in things where he fails to register, and I'm gratified to see what he can really do at last. He's amazing in a quiet and controlled but rich performance here. And Benedict Cumberbatch! Give him all the awards for everything, today. Golden Globe, Good Housekeeping seal, Best in Show, whatever you got. He is a treasure. The Guillam role is a tough one, too; he's called on to do a lot of listening or looking scared, but he's got a nuance for each instance. The shot through the window of him coming home…it's a lot of relevant information, so I won't ruin it, but you'll know it. Dang, that guy is good. I would rush right over to Netflix and watch him in Sherlock Holmes but I have some stupid movie project to do or something? Oh, and also, maybe it's the hair, but Cumberbatch really looks like Dennis Quaid here. Make room, roster of famous boyfriends!

(Honorable mention to Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, disgorging a huge amount of backstory from under one of the less credible wigs in contemporary cinema. He does an elegant job, and is still somehow kind of a fox. Tough job done well.)

So, should you see TTSS? I don't think it's a bad call, actually. I passed some "baaahhhhh-rrrring" comments about it on Twitter, but now that I've figured out what niggled me about it, I'd give it a stronger endorsement — and I didn't see it in the theater, but I'm betting it plays better and more suspensefully that way. It's got slow bits, for sure, but they're an opportunity to watch the pros do their thing, so if you're into that (or into Benedict Cumberbatch) (co-signed), you'll find something to like. Warning, however: that thing may not be Colin Firth. He looks like hell, and the portrayal is pretty flabby. It's the defending champ's prerogative to coast, and…that's what he's doing. Your call.

No idea what the movie's awards chances look like. I would have zero quibble with noms for acting and cinematography/set design, though.

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  • jennie says:

    You should totally watch Sherlock as soon as possible, because it is awesome.

  • attica says:

    I never read the book before, which is weird since I've long loved the spy genre, so I borrowed it in anticipation of this release. And lawsamercy: dull, dull, dull, dull, dull. When nothing interesting happened in the first 100 pages, I skipped to the end. And nothing interesting appeared there to inspire me to read the middle. Partly for what you cite, but it's all very arid-masculinity, all the time, which lacks much attraction for me.

    I'm still looking forward to the film, though, because good actors can put stuff in a dull moment to make it not dull, and there isn't a person in the cast list I haven't had on a boyfriend list at one time or another.

    Benedict Cumberbatch is a marquee name for the ages. (And you will be very happy to finish the month and reward yourself with the Sherlock.)

  • attica says:

    Or, you know, if you haven't finalized your 31-days movie list, you might throw in Amazing Grace, which has Cumberbatch, Ioan Gruffudd and Albert Finney.

  • Ty says:

    Benedict Cumberpatch! It's the best name in showbiz. The thing that most struck me about this movie was how well it used silence. We saw this at the AFI Silver, with the director and Gary Oldman there for a Q&A afterward. The director talked about how they pared down the script to only the bare essential words so he could include as much silence as possible. I loved that! I was a bit confused on some of the plot details, but in the end it all made a kind of sense– and it was so well-acted along the way.

  • Janie says:

    You must watch Sherlock, because DUDE. It's the best thing to come out of the BBC in years, and I LOVE ALL BRITISH TELEVISION.

  • Seankgallagher says:

    If you're a Benedict Cumberbatch fan, while "Amazing Grace" isn't a great movie, it's a good movie, and he's good in a supporting role as William Pitt, the Prime Minister who helped end the slave trade ("Four Lions" is a movie I loved, though it being a black comedy about would-be terrorists, I don't recommend it to everyone, and Cumberbatch doesn't have a big role in it).

    Unlike you, I didn't have raised expectations for this movie; not only do I love the source novel (and le Carre in general), I also really liked the original miniseries with Alec Guinness, so I felt some trepidation about this, even though I was looking forward to it. Overall, I think they did a really good job with this; there were some details they did better in the miniseries (such as the relationship between Jim Prideaux – and I agree with you about Strong's performance here, though I like him more than you do – and Bill Roach), but I like how the movie managed to communicate the paranoia of the time visually, I liked many of the choices of the film (in the miniseries, Patrick Stewart plays Karla, and you get a scene with Ann Smiley at the end; I liked how in the movie, you never see either of them except in fleeting glances, giving you the feeling they were both ghosts George Smiley was chasing), and I liked how Gary Oldman made the role his own. Oh, and while Colin Firth didn't quite measure up to Ian Richardson in the miniseries, I do think he did a good job.

  • Claire says:

    While usually I'm the first in line to defend changes made to scripts when books are adapted to the screen, I love the book so much that I knew there would be no way the movie could impress me. Even though I love Oldman I think he was miscast, in that any famous actor cast to play Smiley is the wrong choice to play someone so totally unimpressive and unnoticeable.

    The fact that I am getting just a little bit sick of seeing the movie everywhere on tumblr has not helped me work through these issues.

  • Deanna says:

    I saw this in September when it came out in the UK; I had never really *gotten* Gary Oldman before but I thought it was a pleasure to watch him in this. He can work a silence. Cumberbatch was great as well. And yeah, Colin Firth…oily and bloated. Coasting indeed.

  • Matt says:

    I've liked Mark Strong in a lot of things, especially Body of Lies and Rocknrolla. Watched that a couple of weekends ago, and I wish Guy Ritchie would take a break from Sherlock (though I did enjoy the first, and imagine I will the second) and do another London gangster movie.

  • […] to the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch and his good-boy hair come closest to some real passion (and Sarah gives him much-deserved, hilarious props over on Tomato Nation), while Tom Hardy manages to be as roguishly charming as ever (it's the only thing that saves […]

  • Cara says:

    I nth all the Sherlock recommendations. It's one of the few updates that manages to get everything that was good about the source material exactly right.

    Also, Benedict Cumberbatch is on my roster of famous boyfriends and not just because he has a spectacular name.

  • DensityDuck says:

    I guess I'm just not the target audience for this book, because, to me, it's hundreds of pages of agonizing over "is there a mole or are we just dumb?" and watching people do things that Might! Be! Important! and then they finally figure out the notion of the sting operation, which anyone who's read a technothriller was expecting them to do in like Chapter Three, and maybe all those technothriller hacks were ripping off Le Carré but the point is that it's not new for us anymore.

    It's like watching "Blade Runner". We aren't blown away by the notion of flying cars and artificial humans because those have been part of the sci-fi movie conversation for thirty years now.

  • Sarah says:

    Benedict Cumberbatch does quite a bit of radio work, too – Cabin Pressure is a pretty daft but very funny sitcom on BBC Radio 4.

    Also, please, someone listen to The Complete Smiley (also BBC), with Simon Russell Beale. Perfectly captures the tawdriness of the Cold War and the 'bunch of seedy, squalid bastards…playing cowboys and Indians' involved in it.

    Sorry for talking about BBC radio plays on a film blog.

  • Sarahnova says:

    What I loved about this film is how much credit it gave me. I felt a bit murky and at sea for the first 30 minutes, yes… much like I was meant to, I think, and much as Smiley and Guillam do. The stripped-backness of the dialogue, where every word counts, the faith in the audience's intelligence… I found my attention rewarded. The atmosphere is terrific. And Benedict Cumberbatch coming home, the look on his face, what he has to do… oh yes.

    I haven't read le Carre, but the doublecrosses sort of aren't the point, are they? I think it's more about the friendships lost, and the lives spent, when, as Smiley says, "there's as little worth on your side as there is on mine".

  • phineyj says:

    TTSS was basically designed for my husband and me, I think. I had Benedict to admire, while he had the Citroen DS (he was a bit disappointed, I think, that they hadn't "cast" our DS but apparently it is the wrong model).

    Gosh though Sarah you must be terrific at following plots if you thought that one was easy to comprehend. We were sitting there as the credits rolled with me going 'so, the bit where thing happened, what was that about again?'

    I agree with the poster above who said it was a very masculine film, but I quite liked that, especially in a period piece. It was nice to watch something that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence, too.

    Mostly I loved how brown everything was. And the smoking!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    you must be terrific at following plots if you thought that one was easy to comprehend

    I was actually pretty lost for about 20 minutes, but that's the thing: when you've had time to think about it and you boil it down, it's not that complicated. But it is convoluted, purposefully, as I mentioned.

  • Kat from Jersey says:

    Sars, I'm another one who would recommend Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch (is that not the *most* British name ever?!) and Martin Freeman are great, but I really tune in for the always gorgeous Rupert Graves as Lestrade.

  • Mary says:

    I absolutely loved it, but I loved it mainly for looking like a spy thriller on the outside, but I think really it's … not. I also read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold over the summer, and that's the same thing. It looks like it's all about the chase and that you should be gripped by the resolution of the mystery, but I think it's much subtler than that. As you say, the plot is actually very thin – it's got nothing on a Grisham – but it's all about the atmosphere and what this weird spy world does to the individuals within it.

    It doesn't give you any sense that the game they are playing matters. You completely believe that they believe that what they are doing is critical to national security, but the film makes it look like they're just caught up in their own game. Nothing outside of their own little circle is shown to be in jeopardy at any stage. So it becomes all about the strange, twisted little world of these men who play games with each other and lie to each other and tell themselves that they're saving the world.

  • Sarahnova says:

    It doesn't give you any sense that the game they are playing matters. You completely believe that they believe that what they are doing is critical to national security, but the film makes it look like they're just caught up in their own game. Nothing outside of their own little circle is shown to be in jeopardy at any stage. So it becomes all about the strange, twisted little world of these men who play games with each other and lie to each other and tell themselves that they're saving the world.

    What I meant to say, but better. Thank you.

  • Sandman says:

    Benedict Cumberbatch gave one of the two performances in [i]Atonement[/i] that didn't make me want to stab myself in the eye. And he and Gruffudd are, well, amazing in [i]Amazing Grace[/i]. Lifetime pass from me. (Besides, the dude can carrying off a name that could be used to pull rabbits out of a top hat. That only looks easy.)

  • Sandman says:

    He can carry it off, is what I meant to say. And I kinda lost my mind on the coding up there; sorry about that, kids. Extra tired today.

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