Now, hyperbole like that is likely to raise doubt and cause one to begin nitpicking Tinker and decrying all of its “faults.” A classification of what makes a movie a “spy” movie must be made before anyone cries foul of my bold statement. First, there is a difference between spy movies and action movies featuring spies. The vast majority of “spy” films (including all of the James Bond movies) are really just action movies. And anyhow, these action movies don’t attempt to portray spying in a realistic manner. Other films, like the above-mentioned Shepherd, Lives, and Confessions, are about realistic spying. The action is limited to a few gunshots and there are almost no explosions. Oh, and the plot is extremely hard to follow.
Tinker is so complicated that it cannot be truly enjoyed with just one viewing. This is not a fault. This makes Tinker a great spy film as you watch it twice or a third time to get all the details of the intricate plot hammered down and you start to pick up on all the details that blurred past the first time through. You notice that the film requires you to spy on the characters since so little is directly stated. Flashbacks that seemed slightly superfluous the first time through now contain the meat of the story just through showing characters interact with each other at a party.
In essence, as you watch and, for lack of a better word, study Tinker, you become like the main character, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Smiley has recently been forced out of the “Circus” (a nickname for the British intelligence agency) along with his boss, Control (John Hurt). Control and Smiley were forced out after a mission gone wrong in which Control hoped to find out the identity of a KGB mole planted at a high level within the Circus. Once in retirement, and after Control dies, it turns out that there really is a mole and Smiley is tasked to find out who it is. There’s much, much more to the plot of Tinker but the simple fact that Smiley is searching for a mole is enough info to give you a basic idea of the plot.
A plot involving spies, much less double spies, naturally leads to paranoia and tension. Tinker certainly contains both, but those are not the film’s strongest elements. Don’t be put off by that, though. There is a constant element of paranoia since both the viewer and the main characters have no idea who they can trust and there are quite a few tense scenes. In fact, this film contains two of the tensest scenes of the year (I’ll elaborate in the spoiler section). It’s just that Tinker is one of best films in recent memory not for paranoia and tension, but for acting and atmosphere.
From the first scene, director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) sets up Tinker as a deadly serious, quiet film. The piano-heavy score instantly and perfectly establishes a constant mysterious mood. The locations, the 70s-ness of it all, the slow, pervasive zooms, and the excellent performances come together to make this a film that you’ll wish never ends. If all of that isn’t enough, Tinker also features one of the most impressive casts in recent memory.
Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Benedict Cumberbatch, and David Dencik. It’s like a who’s who of the best working British actors of the moment; kind of a New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, but with integrity and actual entertainment value. Jokes aside, this cast is great and if there is a downside to it, it’s that some of these actors are too good to be relegated to such small roles. Hinds gets the short end of the stick, but everyone can’t be onscreen all at once. Everyone does a fine job, though. Hardy is the only one who gets to have a bit of fun as he seems to be one of the only characters with a slight sense of humor. Toby Jones plays smug to perfection. Cumberbatch gets a few emotionally charged moments. Strong gets a nice subplot as a schoolteacher. And John Hurt shines in his short scenes (I could listen to him yell the phone book and be entertained). But this is Oldman’s show.
Gary Oldman has made a name for himself over the years as an over-the-top villain and he is great at it, but Tinker allows him to simply act. Smiley is not a character that allows big, showy emotional scenes. Oldman only gets to show emotion a couple of times, but those instances are great. What is truly great about his performance is the presence behind it. Smiley doesn’t talk much and he doesn’t have to. Oldman’s performance is one of reaction as he spends most of the film learning new information. It is not a performance that can be expressed in a clip during an awards show (as you’ll surely see it in the next few months); it is a full bodied performance for a complex film. Like Tinker itself, Oldman is more impressive with each viewing.
All hyperbolic praise aside, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still a film that many will dismiss. It cannot be understated just how difficult this film can be. Some may tune out after the first half hour simply because they can’t keep track of who everybody is and when everything is happening. But if you are a patient viewer with a hankering for a great spy (not action) film, then you need to watch this…twice. If you’re Cold War/spy junkie (like me), then watch it over and over and over.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Oldman's monologue about Karla was pretty great as well. Somehow it was better as a monologue than a flashback. Plus, the film had enough flashback as it was.
Enough's enough, so I'll finish with this: I haven't even scratched the surface of some of the elements of this film. I could go on with the character of Karla, the lighter, the fact that we never really see Ann, the relationship between Firth and Strong, etc. The point is, this movie doesn't give you all the answers. It respects the intelligence of the viewer enough to figure it out and it leaves something to talk about once it's over.