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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 6, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 01
Methodical Tinker, Tailor a masterful spy game
Arts & Entertainment
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Methodical Tinker, Tailor a masterful spy game

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Opening January 6


It is 1973. The British spy agency MI6, codenamed 'Circus,' is under fire for a covert mission in Bulgaria that has gone horribly wrong. The man in charge, known only by the enigmatic cover name Control (John Hurt), has been replaced, and much to his subordinates' surprise, he's taking trusted second George Smiley (Gary Oldman) out the door with him. Why? What's the reason? Is this a betrayal? No one knows, and Control takes the secret with him when he passes away a few short months after his ouster.

Sometime later, high-placed political undersecretary Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) has called Smiley into his office. Up-and-coming Circus agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been running covert operative Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) for some time, and apparently the frazzled and worried spy has information that the Bulgarian operation was Control's attempt to uncover a Russian mole buried at the top of the organization.

Lacon wants Smiley to discover who this double agent is by covertly investigating his old friends now running the Circus. This is why Control took Smiley out the door with him, as unceremoniously cutting his ties to the government was the only way to definitively prove he was not the Russian spy. Now he's the perfect man to discover the truth, the only one who can decide if Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), aka Tinker, Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), aka Tailor, Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), aka Soldier, or Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), aka Poor Man, is the one secretly working against the British cause.

Anyone who has read John le Carré's masterful novel or seen the BBC's exquisite 1979 miniseries already knows that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is far more complicated than that. The line between secret and lie, between friend and foe, is so thin it is practically invisible, and trying to move between these grey areas is the murky reality the quietly inquisitive and masterfully nimble George Smiley finds himself working in.

Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), working from a literate and delectably intricate script by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan (The Debt), makes his English-language debut with this new version of the classic tale, delivering a marvelous spy-versus-spy thriller that's as mesmerizing as it is wonderful. Methodically paced, intelligently plotted, and sensationally acted, the movie is an enthralling stunner educated audiences should fall all over themselves for. The movie is an example of the best the still-vibrant genre has to offer when the story is placed in the hands of those willing to give it the care, nurturing, and focus it deserves.

It begins and ends with Oldman. This is a superlative performance, the renowned actor perched on his chair like a wise old owl overseeing his domain. He doesn't say a lot and seldom raises his voice, yet the authority in every syllable is backed up by years of experience and self-control. Every facet of his portrayal is a study in controlled disappointment and rage, both tinged with just the slightest modicum of regret. I couldn't take my eyes off of the man, and for someone who considers Alec Guinness' 1979 portrayal of the character to be an absolute triumph, my saying this about Oldman is high praise indeed.

Yet the film is more than just one performance and more than the divine work of the supporting cast (which, incidentally, also includes noted character actors Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, and Stephen Graham), as Alfredson takes le Carré's timeless tale of espionage and intrigue into corners that feel fresh and new. There is a ticking clock dynamic that is relentless, and as the truth comes closer to the blinding light of day, the sweat on my brow and the hurried tempo of my breath increased at the same pace.

Of course, for fans of the book or the miniseries, the answers to the central mystery will hardly come as a surprise. Alfredson doesn't exactly go out of his way to hide the identity of the mole, and anyone with an ounce of observational acumen will be able to point him out roughly halfway through. Yet the whys of the deception are even more fascinating here than they were in Guinness' version, and a scene where Smiley accepts his downfall and agrees to pass on a pair of messages for him is poignant in its tragic emotional subtlety.

It will be interesting to discover if current audiences will have the patience for this new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, if they'll be willing to invest the time and energy it takes to stick with this adventure as it moves systematically toward its nail-biting conclusion. I certainly hope they do, and eagerly wish they'll make the film something of a minor hit. This is suspense filmmaking like we seldom see anymore, and in a world of souped-up video-game-inspired pyrotechnics, Alfredson and le Carré remind us a little bit of quiet can be the most unsettlingly terrific weapon of them all.

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