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Cinema Signal: Not quite a full green light but has elements of strong appeal for a discerning audience.


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[Ed. note: because of the unpredictable way accented letters are rendered
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"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

This cold war spy thriller can boast of superb production values, an impeccable cast and life or death tension. These components conspire to keep us galvanized as the appearance of treason in a cold war clandestine service agency, and the burning need to quell it, unfolds across different time lines in the early to mid 70s. We are in London when Britain's MI6, an agency roughly equivalent to our CIA, is known among the insiders and governmental overseers as the "Circus."

Following John Le Carre's typical narrative style of densely convoluted detail and an inordinate stream of flashbacks, the movie creates the same kind of comprehension test as reading the book that is the basis of the movie. But, any effort, including some pre-screen research if not reading the book, pays off with rich involvement.

It begins when a shadowed figure knocks on what appears to an unexceptional door to a typical London flat. The door opens, however, on none less than the man known as "Control" (John Hurt), chief of the Circus. The man entering is Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), the highly respected and trusted agent whom the spy leader is sending to Budapest to negotiate with a Hungarian general for the identity of the Soviet mole who has just been discovered to be one of the five senior members of the agency hierarchy for years.

To protect Operation Witchcraft, an unusually rich source of Soviet intelligence, as well as the lives of all the field agents in Hungary, the urgency of the mission is critical. The double agent must be found and eliminated! But when Prideaux senses that the meeting is a setup, and attempts to leave the rendezvous point in Budapest, all hell breaks out and he's shot. Back home, it's quick to the clean room to contend with the brutal reality of such failure.

In the wake of this catastrophe, which seems to confirm not only the presence of a very active mole and the advantage it gives Command's Soviet nemesis, Karla, he resigns. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), his second in command, is forced into early retirement but remains the go-to guy as stories and clues about the mole rise to the surface. Leads follow in an atmosphere of tight suspicion.

The movie raises an emotional dimension when Rogue agent Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) observes a beauty named Irina (Svetlana Khodchenkova) getting beaten up by her gruesome Russian husband for finding him in their bed with a woman. When Tarr pursues Irina both for what knowledge she may have and because of her powerful allure, the movie takes on a whole new level of involvement in the lethal dangers to which people we care about are exposed.

Swedish Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") directs from a screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan adapted from le Carre' first novel in the Karla trilogy. Rounding out the senior officials under suspicion by the secret service agency are a load of brilliant veterans: Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth and David Dencik, all of whose performances breathes life into the dryly cerebral atmosphere of deceit and one-upmanship between enemies. They show us what flawless acting looks like.

What's called upon them to perfect for Alfredson's approach to an espionage thriller is the art of silent expression, a technique of which he employs constantly as part of the unique nature of secrets and covert operations. The actor must have a sense of the camera's magnification under screen projection in order to proportion the outward expression of thoughts, internal feelings, silent connections between them and others, etc. Under Alfredson's watch, Oldman, Hurt, Strong and a few others show us the pinnacle of the art. It's enough to suggest that there is likely to be a number of Oscar nominations derived from the film.

Memorable for me are two moments: when a major realization comes across the face of Mark Strong (well after being shot) with nothing more than the light in his eyes and the subtlest flexing of a facial muscle; and when Control finally connects the dots and realizes who the mole is. So fine tuned it's almost profound.

Benedict Cumberbatch as George Smiley's aide Peter Guillam has a key role to play in the espionage dynamics which he dispatches with strong capability. Key figures Hurt and Oldman are justifiably lauded for their ability to invest their characters with stateliness, depth and personality.

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The brilliant title stems from le Carre's use of the well-known children's counting game originated in a folk song. In a flashback we learn that Control, in preparation for Prideaux's learning the identity of the mole and transmitting it to him, assigns code names to the suspects: "Tinker," "Tailor," "Soldier," "Poorman" and "Beggar man" so that the name may be communicated without the mole's knowledge. In devising his code names from this universally known rhyme, Control rejects "Richman" as inappropriate and "Sailer" as too much like "Tailer." There is a sense of irony and amusement that flavors the disappointment and failure in spy country.

Composer Alberto Iglesias's ("The Skin I Live In") music, written for a small orchestra and no brass, serves the prevailing modality of the clandestine atsmosphere with a supportive presence. He describes his own work as "contemplative" as is so much of the film. He starts the film out, though, with a high tension intro that sets a high level of excitement. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema ("The Fighter") harbors an exactitude and precision of texture and subtlety, capturing the infinitesimal facial expressions that give the film a lot of its character and depth.

In the end, the film has many strong virtues and a very impressive array of talent. Some viewers, I hear, may not consider this to be the definitive version and the 1979 Alec Guinness six-hour BBC series may be preferred as the better standard for the book's exposure of the American and British-educated traitors who rose to great and shameful infamy during a terrible time in modern geopolitical history.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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