Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [film review]

Released theatrically in Europe in September 2011 and North America in December 2011; released yesterday on DVD, Blu-ray, and video-on-demand
I knew before watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that it was a film requiring patience and acute concentration from its viewers. Reviews told me so, a friend told me so (she needed to watch it multiple times to get a handle on the plot), and my dad told me so (he found the film confusing and had gone into it having already seen the original 1979 BBC miniseries which, like the film, is based on John le Carré's 1974 novel). So despite the overwhelmingly rave reviews from critics, I approached the movie with a significant degree of wariness, which proved to be well-founded. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, to say the least, a challenging viewing experience, both in terms of its leaden pace and convoluted plot. Watching it on an ultra-attentive level didn't help - by the time I got to the end of the movie, I felt abjectly alienated by my inability to follow the labyrinthian storylines and engage with any of the significant characters.
Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley (played by Alec Guinness in the miniseries), a British intelligence expert called out of retirement in the early-to-mid 1970s to find the identity of a Russian mole operating within the upper levels of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Smiley's investigation resumes the work of his recently deceased former boss at the agency (played by John Hurt), who had the list of suspects narrowed down to five, including Smiley himself and characters played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik. Also contributing supporting roles are Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley's assistant, Mark Strong as a field spy, and Inception's Tom Hardy (next appearing as villain Bane in this summer's The Dark Knight Rises) as a rogue agent. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy undoubtedly has a strong cast, but there was an off-putting impenetrability to just about all of the notable characters for me, which is more a fault of the script and director than the actors. Oldman's Smiley has such a cold and reserved demeanour that the character just felt flat and terribly difficult to invest any empathy in.
Along with problematic characters who are sometimes hard to keep track of, the film's narrative is dense to an almost oppressive degree. Whereas the novel is a bulky 400 pages long and the miniseries had a running time of over five-and-a-half hours, director Tomas Alfredson (best known for Let The Right One In) and screenwriters Bridgett O'Connor and Peter Straughan had to cut their adaptation to 127 minutes. The film is also hampered by a wildly scattershot linear structure that only adds to the muck with its abundance of flashforwards and flashbacks. One scene shows a character apparently dying, only to be followed by another scene that runs for two-and-a-half minutes where the character is alive and in an environment seemingly unconnected to anything else in the movie. Some of the head-scratchers get explained later, others seem to just vaguely hang around without proper closure. Visually, it doesn't help that the movie is set predominantly in grey-tinged London, with a majority of its time spent amongst drabby office interiors.
Clearly, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an elaborate film that likely requires more than one viewing for most to appreciate its supposed brilliance. That's a luxury I'm not inclined to give it, considering what an arduous slog it was getting through the thing once. I'm certainly not adverse to intelligent and challenging cinematic stories, but not unlike the time I tried to read War And Peace in my teens, I'll humbly admit that this one completely eluded my scope of comprehension.
Rating: E