Tinker Tailor Soldier … Oscar?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (February 11, 2012 – Lyric Screening in Blacksburg, VA)     3.5/5

Directed by Tomas Alfredson (StudioCanal)

If great elements of a film go over your head, does that still make it a great film? As a critic, that is the fundamental question posed to me by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of the 1974 novel by John le Carre, which was made into a BBC miniseries in 1979. I have yet to experience either, which leaves me at a disadvantage, quite similar to the lack of experience evident in my review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (although I would later see the Swedish adaptation, to much greater appreciation).

Predictably, Tinker Tailor has been praised by critics for a flawless performance by Gary Oldman, atmospheric direction by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (who crafted the brilliant youth-vampire love story, Let the Right One In), and an incredibly dense, narratively spellbinding screenplay by Peter Straughan and his late wife Bridget O’Connor, whom the film is dedicated to. But despite the fact that all the pieces may come together, a sacrifice must be made by the first-time viewer who has had no prior association with le Carre’s story and characters. At its worst, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is simply incomprehensible.

The basic premise, involving Oldman as a former British Intelligence agent assigned to find a Soviet mole in the Cold War era, is certainly captivating. But once the narrative threads begin to overlap, it’s anyone’s chess match. As most already know, the 84th Annual Academy Awards are approximately two weeks away, so I figured it would be fun to critique Tinker Tailor on the basis of where the Academy places the film’s strengths. And if I remain satisfied with this piece in a day or so … hey, there may be time to analyze a few others.

Best Actor, Gary Oldman

Oldman plays the character of George Smiley, forced into retirement as a result of a blown operation in Hungary. The mission that brings him pack pits him against his former allies in British Intelligence – those played by Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, and Toby Jones – who all give quite solid performances. Tom Hardy also does an impeccable job as Ricki Tarr, the man who reveals the possibility of a mole in the previously stated group, paralleled by equally great performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and John Hurt.

So amidst a cast of British all-stars, how does Oldman’s protagonist steal the screen? In my opinion, it is both subtlety and mystery. Having no familiarity with how Smiley’s character is supposed to develop, it might just be my ignorance that defines the respect I have for Oldman’s performance, rather than his accuracy of playing the character. Smiley’s wife has left him once again, and this is arguably one element that drives him to unravel deception in other areas of life, as well as keeps the audience interested enough to do the same. Being a newbie, I wish that his relationship developments with Firth’s character were slightly more defined, in addition to the psychological rivalry between he and the Soviet master of it all – the so-called “Karla.” But I did find the performance fascinating, and the nomination well-deserved. Even in the final shot, I questioned the old man’s motives, and perhaps through trickery of his own, cared enough to wish him happiness.

Best Adapted Screenplay, Peter Straughan & Bridget O’Connor

It takes slick writing to adapt a lengthy novel/seven-hour miniseries into a compact, two-hour package. I give thanks to editor Dino Jonsater for his seamless transitions between past and present, so fluid that they are sometimes not recognized until mentioned in the dialogue. After all, this is a film that forces you to keep up. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is also startlingly well-composed. So yes, the screenplay is visualized with technical perfection, but how is the writing itself? It pains me to say that any adult of relative intelligence, having yet to experience le Carre’s plotting, will not be able to comprehend a hefty portion of Alfredson’s film. There is simply too much occurring; in different places and at different times, in heavy British accents and incessant spy lingo.

The general story elements come across just fine, but only after looking up a plot summary did I realize just how much I had missed. Deceit is a theme of the film, yes, but to the point where it mutes our understanding of the characters, in addition to other themes, there lies a fundamental problem. Tinker Tailor is filled with the passage of information, most of which is not revealed. The goal is to enunciate the absurdity of the Cold War era, but we are instead left with a fast-paced, confusing piece of espionage artistry. Oscar worthy? Maybe. But it would be a lie to say I could completely connect with it.

Best Original Score, Alberto Iglesias

Despite the flaws of Tinker Tailor, it is always entertaining, and perhaps a key reason is the musical score by Alberto Iglesias. Despite what the film does to distance audiences, the haunting nature of Iglesias’ compositions always draws intrigue. Even when we are confused, the erratic music excites (or even jolts us) with the promise of surprise, and draws us into mystery when we already have too much to handle. It is a key ingredient to the masterful tone of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, matched perfectly to the elaborate world captured by Alfredson’s camera. There have been better scores this year, but few have so perfectly embodied why music within film is so important.

The Final Verdict

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a picture that very much conflicted me; well-executed to the point of excellence, but complex to the point of frustration. I was indeed entertained, but upset that I could not obtain everything that I knew must be present. I sometimes believe that it is impossible to judge a movie until you have seen it at least twice. In recent memory, there has never been a film to better prove that point. I will be quite interested to see if the Academy awards anything to Tinker Tailor, and will not be at all surprised if it receives none of the three. But on a side-note, I also want to applaud the film’s narrative ingenuity. Although I fail to believe claims that this is a perfect film, it is rare to see something so mentally provoking. And I sure as hell can’t wait to see it again.

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