John Le Carre, I wanted to check out the book before seeing the movie. I can't tell you how much I struggled through the book, forcing myself to finish it because if a movie was made, the source novel has to be good, right? Thankfully, 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was infinitely more enjoyable than its source novel.
When a mission is badly botched in Budapest, Control (John Hurt) and his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forcefully pushed out the door at MI6. A new power system rises to the top, and most of a year later with Control dead, Smiley is approached with an important mission. More and more intelligence points to a high-up official in British intelligence being a mole working deep, deep undercover for Russia. The suspects have been narrowed down to four key individuals, but none of them seem any more likely to be the mole than the others. With the help of a younger but very capable agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley is tasked with exposing the mole. Can they do it in time?
Le Carre's book is something else. Countless characters, seemingly endless passages of dialogue on top of dialogue, and a non-linear story that I for one had trouble keeping up with. I hate calling a book dull or boring because it sounds very high school, but I struggled to maintain an interest in the very slowly developing story. Even when things were revealed, I had to re-read and double check just to make sure I'd read right. It defines a low-key, subtle spy story with little sense of urgency. Thankfully the movie streamlines the characters, the dialogue and the story, all the while remaining true to Le Carre's novel. It certainly isn't a movie for everyone, and it has its flaws, but 'Tinker' is quite the thinking man's spy movie.
Let's start with the tone and look of the movie. Like the novel, it is incredibly low-key, almost comatose in its development. For a story revolving around a high-level mole, no one seems particularly worried. The story utilizes flashbacks and bounces around constantly, throwing new characters in and out of scenes as needed. You know, just know, they're somehow related, and for the most part they do fit together in the end. It is a self-assured movie, and will probably lose some viewers with its leisurely pacing. The look of the movie is incredible from the sets and costumes to the camera work. The spies all wear suits and ties, constantly smoke cigarettes, and always have some liquor close by. This was the Cold War fought by gentlemen, not the gung-ho, shoot 'em up James Bond and Jason Bournes. These spies did their best when not seen by their opposition, slinking in and out as quickly as they arrived.
My biggest motivation for finishing the book was the cast assembled in director Tomas Alfredson's spy drama. I'll begin with Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a part that has already started to earn the actor some Oscar buzz for Best Actor. Like its story, Oldman is understated beyond belief as Smiley, a veteran agent with years of experience under his belt. He's experienced more than most can dream of, and the wear and tear shows. Pushed out of a job he was damn good at, his Smiley holds some earned resentment at the government and superiors that turned their back on him. Above all else, he is a professional though. He's a dogged investigator, able to piece together clues and information as needed, always thinking how the pieces fit together. I love Oldman as an actor -- playing good or bad guy -- but it's great seeing him truly acting, not just hamming it up. Great lead performance.
That's saying something considering the rest of the cast. The treacherous suspects include Alleline (Toby Jones), Haydon (Colin Firth), Esterhase (David Dencik), and Bland (Ciaran Hinds), both Jones and Firth making the best impressions. Cumberbath too holds his own at Oldman's side, an agent with a possible secret of his own, and Hurt is Hurt, legitimizing his small part because he's John Hurt. One of my new favorite actors, Mark Strong, has a solid supporting part as Prideaux, an agent who's stumbled into a botched mission and must pay the consequences. Another favorite of mine, Tom Hardy plays Ricki, a "scalphunter," an agent usually relegated to the more sinister missions, this time trying to move up a level with some info he stumbled into. Kathy Burke and Stephen Graham have key parts as former Intelligence members Smiley investigates. Not a false performance in the bunch, an ensemble working perfectly together. Not showy at all, just professionals doing what they do, seemingly effortlessly.
The movie isn't perfect though, but I did enjoy it considerably more than Le Carre's novel. Problems persist though. We learn little to nothing about the suspects so even when the mole is revealed, it makes little impact. A throwaway line explains the reasoning in a weak wrap-up. I would have liked some reasoning, some background on these men, allowing us to connect emotionally in some way whether it be hatred, respect, whatever. The story drifts at time -- like the novel -- in an 127-minute movie. Still, it's almost a must-see movie because it is so rare to see a movie of this quality, especially among the spy genre. The ending especially is a winner, a montage set to French song La Mer, later Americanized by Bobby Darin's Beyond the Sea. Style and acting to spare, just know what you're about to watch.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy <---trailer (2011): ***/****