Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy


MFR Rating: ★ ★

It’s much hyped and adored by critics. It’s narratively complex and unforgiving in its portrayal of the complexities of Cold War espionage. It’s gorgeously filmed with a real eye for detail. It moves slowly and with great care to remain true to its novelistic origins. So why does it feel so isolating?

For those of us unfamiliar with John Le Carre’s famous work or with the equally celebrated 1979 TV adaptation, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the story of the less-than-aptly-named George Smiley (Gary Oldman), here presented as a rather lifeless, retired agent with a quest to identify a mole in the highest level of the Secret Intelligence Service. Characters aplenty and mystique galore. Secrets, spies and espionage! So disappointing.

The thing about a character driven drama is that the characters need to drive the film. Fantastic insight, I know. This ain’t your favourite film review blog for nothing, eh? Shhhh…humor me. It’s kinder.

Here we have people, many of them, never really introduced but instead going through the motions of the plot. It’s a people driven film, not character. To get inside a character you need to understand their motivations, get inside their heads a little bit. I call it the Red Letter Media test. In his wonderfully detailed insight into exactly what’s wrong with the Star Wars prequels, Red Letter Media begins by asking people: name a few core character attributes to say…Han Solo? A rogue, a bit of a sly lady’s man and a criminal who moves from being self obsessed to a hero and a friend (spoiler alert). Now, hark back (or forward…no it’s definitely back) to 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Qui Gon Jinn. Character attributes? Erm, a jedi…Liam Neeson…ermm nice hair? There’s really nothing that can be said about dear Qui Gon.

I digress, but you get the point. Gary Oldman’s Smiley – retired spy, coming back for one more gig. Sure that’s his job, but where’s the character?

Tinker Tailor sacrifices plot for any attempt for the audience to feel any understanding with its subjects. These are Cold War spies for goodness sake, fascinating creatures. Please tell me what motivates them? Is it the adrenaline? Patriotism? Something in their past? How do they get their thrills? They’re at the top of their game. What makes them so good at their jobs? It has no sense of characters, no sense of thrill, no deep human insight and no sense of fun. What does it do exactly?

It contains a very complicated narrative for anyone not familiar with the work. I like how it starts with the very simple premise: there’s a mole, let’s find him. From the first frame I made a conscious decision to really, really concentrate. Maybe I have no right to call myself a film reviewer but – I didn’t get. I don’t feel any shame in that.

You see, it all comes back to what I said about the characters. No matter how hard I concentrated on the plot intricacies the utter detachment I felt from the 2 dimensional canvasses thrown at me lets the film down enormously. I was bored. I thought about my plans for tomorrow. Did I let the cat out? Reading the synopsis later, I understood a lot more than I thought. It’s just so detached from characters I can empathise with. From this detachment it feels devoid of suspense and intrigue and just plodded along monotonously. Do I care who’s the mole? Oh, that person’s the mole. Who saw that coming? Brilliant espionage, cast directors. I’ll say no more – but that was sarcasm.

Prominent actors are underused and not given a chance to perform. Mark Strong looks about as bored as his look-a-likey Dimitar Berbatov does on the Old Trafford bench (someone tell me it’s not just me?!). Tom Hardy is just waiting to rip that shirt off for Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises. Colin Firth is a million miles away from the stuttering King who left me all teary eyed. Dry eyes and drooping, I just tried to stay awake.

True, it’s nicely shot and I liked the colour palette, but the fact I’m mentioning these things let’s you know something. Critics may applaud it for technical excellence and undeniably bold choice of pacing. I’m not going to go into these in detail because for me, you can never, ever overlook the importance of characters to great storytelling. My lack of empathy with Tinker was crushing.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is out now in the UK and out on 9th December in the US. Running time: 127 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).

Comments and feedback are always welcome or just give the film a rating by using the stars at the top.

Review by David Rank

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6 thoughts on “Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

  1. Good review! I’ve been hearing nothing but good things about this, I’m surprised to hear a negative review from a 3rd party. Check out my movie reviews when you get the chance, cheers!

  2. Cheers Matt, will do. It’s very hard to find negative reviews for this film, which I find a bit strange. I hope I’ve put the other side of the argument strongly. I think lots of critics are just going with the tide so that they don’t look like the only one who doesn’t ‘get it’, although I’m sure people who’ve read the book/tv series have a very different perspective.

  3. Very interesting David not the first time you’ve gone against critical opinion. Think its partly due to the source material (not I don’t particularly like La Carre) because he writes dryly and gods sake he had to write a whole book about the main characters motivations for later books(honorable school boy). Plus the desire for the ambiguities of the cold war spying especially in the dark days of the 70s (helps most of the reviewers can either remember the time or were still in the cold war feelings)

  4. Nice to see a review I agree with

    – critics are falling over themselves to heap praise on this film,
    and so are fans of the series
    but unless you’ve read the book / watched the series
    then you’ll just stare at the well-shot scenes and count the minutes until the end.

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