Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is based on John le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same name, and stars Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ciarán Hinds. The film was nominated for three Oscars at the 2012 Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Oldman), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score.
The setting is the Cold War, and the paranoia of a mole who is selling top secret information to the Soviets has infiltrated all corners of Britain’s secret service, MI6 (also known as The Circus). George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired spy, or rather, he was forced to retire after an operation he ran to uncover a mole was botched horribly. Now, new information has come in that shows the mole is still very much active, but is also now believed to be one of the highest members of The Circus. Smiley is brought back in to help uncover the mole once and for all. But who do you trust for help or information when literally every single person in the agency is a potential suspect? Tinker. Tailor. Soldier. Spy. All code names for his former colleagues, and every single one of them is now under suspicion.
At least that is what I was eventually able to work out. The film certainly doesn’t go to any pains to make this very clear from the outset. The clandestine mood of the story sometimes goes a bit overboard by also trying to hide important details from the viewer. On one hand, you are certainly thrust into the confusing paranoia of the intelligence community during the Cold War. In a time when you can’t trust anyone’s motives, much less their words, understanding is in short supply. And on that level, we’re right there with the characters. But there is a bit of backstory that gets missed that would have helped frame that idea.
It’s difficult to find the precise point of fault with the movie, as there are a couple of elements working against it. The first is the introduction of the characters, or rather the lack thereof. The film is content to provide knowing and mysterious glances as a means of character development, trusting that you’re already up to speed on these people and/or the roles that they play within their organization – perhaps either by way of the novel or the older mini-series adaptation. The movie can’t seem to be bothered with explaining that to you (“much too pedestrian”). Because of this it can be very difficult to get your bearings. The second thing working against it is the non-linear timeline of the film. The focus shifts between present day and past events, without any initial indication. It isn’t until later in the film, mostly by the presence or absence of certain characters, that this becomes more obvious, but by then there are too many important elements that have been missed.
These problems tend to right themselves after repeat viewings or by taking in some of the supplemental material provided on the Blu-ray. But it’s a bit sloppy that that would be necessary. There is an important difference between films that merit repeat viewings and those that require it. This one is both, but that latter element isn’t really a badge of honor, as it usually indicates some insufficient clarity of storytelling.
But there is still a fairly engaging conspiracy story lying in wait. On subsequent visits the missing pieces become – in a way – more important; part of the plot. And once you orient yourself to the story and the world of the underground spy trade, several layers begin to unfold, where before they were so subtle as to pass you by. This becomes a rather engaging video release, where if you have the patience to revisit it, you’ll actually be rewarded more, instead of the diminishing returns from most spy movies once the “reveal” has been spoiled. The intricacies of the performances by this highly effective cast grow each time, and their subtlety becomes a thing of beauty.
The first thing you’ll notice is the obviously heavy grain that is present throughout the entire film. It gives it a very authentic mid-70s feel, even though it’s a bit out of step from what we’re used to with the current trend of overly-cleaned prints. It feels very appropriate both to the setting and the genre, and once you adjust to the visual it’s a very rich encoding. Although the color scheme for the film is intentionally muted to brown, orange, and other earth-tone hues, the impeccable design and flow of each shot gives it depth beyond just color. In fact, its drabness becomes a character, aiding the isolation that’s ever-present by each character of the film. The high definition treatment – given that preamble – is quite rich.
The audio, on the other hand, needs no caveats or explanation. It is simply a wonderful example of an expertly utilized DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Alberto Iglesias provides a score that is simultaneously lush and spare, as much of the film plays off an almost stifling quiet. But what’s there shows a restrained robustness. Surround effects enter when appropriate and are realistically spaced. The music is both rich and measured, and the track as a whole inhabits its own skin perfectly.
It’s often frustrating that some of the film releases that could most benefit from explanatory bonus material are left without. But here, there are some useful items included that genuinely enhance the viewing experience. First up is a commentary track featuring actor Gary Oldman and director Tomas Alfredson. The pair share some interesting facts about the story and its filming, although in a very reserved tone. It oftens feels like Oldman is interviewing Alfredson in order to get him to participate in the track, but ultimately there are some helpful discussions that unfold.
There is a “First Look” (HD, 13:00) feature that actually turns out to be a pretty ace primer for the story, and far from fluff, it would probably be beneficial to watch this first before the movie, if this is your first viewing. The cast and producers help set up the best story from the novel and then help explain the particular pacing and timeline of the movie, which helps give it a good deal more clarity. There are a handful of deleted scenes (HD, 6:08) that would have neither added to nor distracted from the final cut.
Finally there are a string of interviews with actors Gary Oldman (SD, 7:40), Colin Firth (SD, 6:33) and Tom Hardy (SD, 3:27), as well as co-screenwriter Peter Straughon and director Tomas Alfredson (SD, 7:01), and novelist John le Carré (HD, 31:48). Most of them are generic questions with generic answers, with the exception of the extended interview with le Carré. The author gives a very detailed and intricate look at the book’s and George Smiley’s inspiration, his own intelligence experience, the transition of the novel to the screen, and the complicated role of spies in modern, post-Cold War times.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a thoughtful and effective spy film, but only for those who have the patience for its sometimes glacial development and need for multiple viewings. The Blu-ray release is probably the best format for it – especially over an isolated theater experience – as the supplemental content actually aids in helping to uncover the various subtle layers at work in the story. Although I have misgivings about the fact that the movie needs rewatching to really work, this release does yield reward for those patient enough to explore.