Reviews: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Technically Good, Thematically Empty

The director, producers and writers of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were so intent on making a great film that they forgot to make a good one. While the production is technically excellent, it is so self-consciously arty that each frame of the film might as well carry the caption “Please Give Us an Oscar.”

Beyond it’s technical production, TTSS is a surprisingly shallow film. It’s characters seem to have no depth or development other than as conveyors of a general sense of gloom. The remarkable themes of the novel are entirely missing. Instead, we are left with the facile message that professional spies have depressing lives, which, in an odd way, romanticizes the world of espionage just as much as any James Bond film.

This is strangely appropriate, since, although adapted from the novel of the same name, TTSS would likely not exist were it not for the James Bond films. The film’s publicity and nearly all of the (very positive) reviews were careful to mention that this film is not an action/adventure, specifically unlike the Bond franchise. “Not a James Bond movie,” may be the films only significant theme.

Film: Good but demanding

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy asks a lot more from viewers than they are used to. If you don't concentrate entirely throughout, it is very easy to fall behind on the many details and ultimately lose the plot. But if you can keep your mind on it all the way through, you'll be rewarded with an excellent and rare kind of film.

Tinker tells the story of Smiley, an ex M.I.6 agent tasked with finding a Soviet mole within "The Circus" (the UK's intelligence offices). So follows a story of double agents, torture, intrigue, lots of tweed and pipe smoking, and all the other lovely things that a British Cold War spy story should have.

The tendency with big British films to sell themselves on their all star cast. UK Adverts for such films don't tell you the plot, they just show you who's in it and the middle aged viewer is supposed to go "oh, I like Judy Dench! Let's watch that." (The UK Quartet and Marigold Hotel trailers are good examples). Often the cast ends up overshadowing the actual movie itself, and it is easy to disengage with the story and just watch the performances - my mum to this day does not know how Gosford Park ends, despite watching it a half dozen times. Thankfully, Tinker isn't one of those films. The cast is certainly excellent and their performances are big, but it never distracts the viewer from the story. They simply serve the story.

The real star of the movie is the direction and the cinematography. It's a movie that likes to lovingly gaze over bizarre geometries, odd architecture, and splendid wallpapers. One thing I particularly liked was the way in which many scenes were filmed through windows, as if to emphasis the fact that we are eavesdropping on these secret meetings. It's things like that which maintains the focus on the mystery, paranoia and mental arithmetic in every scene.

At their heart, spy literature has much more in common with old fashioned murder mysteries than with action and adventure. What with the increasing trend towards making all spies into Jason Bourne, I'm pleased that a methodical, intellectual spy yarn managed to be made in this day and age. Do it some justice, and watch it.