(A sinus infection kept me in the house this weekend, so I didn't see the winner of this week's movie poll, "Haywire." I'll see it as soon as I can and will also watch the winner of this week's poll.)
Rarely does a film leave me with a dual opinion. I’ve had movies thrill me, annoy me, bore me, scare me, insult me, ignore me, make me giggle, make me laugh out loud, make me cry like a baby, make me sleepy and make me want to leave. No matter how a movie makes me feel, I usually can develop a uniform opinion of it and express it in my review. That, however, is not the case with this week’s movie, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on the 1974 John le Carre novel of British Cold War spies and the search for a double agent. With this film I can see how the average viewer would have a hard time deciding whether the film is fascinating or boring.
When a mission to bring in a Soviet bloc defector goes wrong in Hungary in 1973 and agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot and captured, the unauthorized operation brings down the head of British Intelligence known only as Control (John Hurt) and his immediate subordinate George Smiley (Gary Oldman). Some months later, the British minister over intelligence Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) approaches Smiley with a mission. There is a Soviet mole at the top of British Intelligence. The mission that got he and Control fired was to bring in a Hungarian general who knew the mole’s identity. Now, Smiley is asked to the double agent’s identity while still being outside the agency, also known as The Circus. Aided by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), an intelligence operative inside The Circus, Smiley discovers who Control suspected of being the mole and the code names for each: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Tinker, who took over the Control post, and his close allies Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Tailor, Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), Soldier, Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Poorman and Smiley himself, Beggarman. Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a field operative whom the double agent has made to look like a defector, may hold the key to solving the mystery if Smiley can keep him from getting killed.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a deliberately paced, densely plotted movie that more than most films requires the audience to pay attention. I’ve said this before but it has never been truer than now. A moment of inattention could mean missing a vital event. A quick trip to the restroom would be a fatal error. Void accordingly. That doesn’t mean you’ll figure out who the double agent is before the reveal near the end no matter how much attention you pay. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not the kind of procedural you see on TV where a witness statement suddenly makes the entire mystery perfectly clear. I was as clueless in the instant before his identity was made known as I was during the opening credits. Anyone who says they figured it out is either lying or took a wild guess. The story works hard at making everyone look guilty and equally as likely the double agent. I liked that aspect of the plot. Who wants to know the ending before you get there?
The film is paced at a crawl which will turn off many viewers used to the regularly spaced car chase and fist fight to the death of a James Bond movie. Most of the action in the film occurs out of sight and we see the aftermath. Again, I liked this as a way to get in more story and not waste time with violence that would leave the main characters unscathed or mildly injured but able to continue. Still, I would have liked a bit more energy from the performances. Oldman, Firth, Hinds, Dencik and the rest of the cast plays their characters with traditional British stiff upper lips, treating the possibly world-shattering events as just another day in the office. Perhaps for a British spy, it was just another day. The only character who seems energized in the story is Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy. The story’s pace picks up as we see via flashback the events that put Tarr in jeopardy; however, once those are done, the film settles back into its laconic pace. The film is in no hurry to reach its climax and wants to put all its cards on the table in a leisurely manner.
The story is as much about office politics as it is about the Cold War. The original Control was a difficult boss who had no problem berating his closest advisors loudly and publicly. Once he’s gone, the cliques of upper management realign and jostle for the best assignments and the most face time with the new man in charge. Policies and layers of bureaucracy are added to justify the leadership change. It’s just like every other office in the world except these people root out the secrets that keep Communism at bay. The stakes are awfully high to use who has been nicer to the boss to make life and death decisions. Any time you get a group of people in a hierarchical structure that requires leaders and followers you’ll get groups within groups and power struggles. I guess we can’t work selflessly toward a common goal, even if it is to preserve freedom.
All of this makes “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” a confounding film. It is both fascinating and boring. It never gets out of first gear but motors along steadily, exposing plots and lies and betrayal on both international and personal scales. It seems to want you to find it dull and doesn’t care if you do. It is a unique film.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language. We see a woman beat up by her abusive husband after she catches him in bed with another woman. There are a couple of graphic scenes showing dead bodies. We see a person shot in the head with a great deal of blood and brain matter splattered on the wall behind. Another person is shot just below the eye. There are scattered topless women and a few bare backsides on display. Foul language is very widely scattered.
I can see how many people with view “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” as deadly dull. There isn’t a single car chase, one very brief fight and just a few shootings. It mostly consists of people talking. I found what they said and how they said it very interesting. I’m probably among the minority. Therefore, I have to give the movie a split decision rating. If it was just for me, then I’d rate it highly. Since I can see what many will view as weaknesses, I will lower my rating accordingly.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” gets three guitars.
(I've updated the list of new movies with this week's arrivals)
It’s a busy week at your local theatres with five new flicks. Vote for the next movie you’d like me to see and review.
The Grey--A group of oil-rig roughnecks are left stranded on the sub-arctic tundra after their plane crashes in the remote Alaskan wilderness, facing bitter cold, starvation and hungry wolves.
Man on a Ledge--An ex-cop and now wanted fugitive stands on the ledge of a high-rise building while a hard-living New York Police Department negotiator tries to talk him down.
One for the Money--A proud, born-and-bred Jersey girl with plenty of attitude and desperate for some fast cash, turns to tracking bail jumpers to make ends meet.
Carnage--After two boys duke it out on a playground, the parents of the "victim" invite the parents of the "bully" over to work out their issues. It doesn't go well.
Shame--Brandon is a 30-something man living in New York who is unable to manage his sex life. After his wayward younger sister moves into his apartment, Brandon's world spirals out of control
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film currently playing.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.