Now Playing: An Espionage Drama Not Worth Tinkering With

Since it started building buzz on the festival circuit and in the U.K. (where it opened nearly three months ago), I, along with many other film lovers, have been looking forward to ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.’ Although my expectations were high, they weren’t so high that they couldn’t be met – but that didn’t stop the film from being a let-down. It’s too congested and cluttered, too brainy and too complex for general entertainment.

It’s 1973 and there’s a mole in “The Circus” (the highest level of the British secret service). George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a retired top lieutenant within the agency, is secretly rehired to lead a quiet investigation that will uncover the mole’s identity.

From there, lots of things happen – all of them unexplained – that turn the film into a convoluted, over-indulgent mess. Since we see the story from Smiley’s perspective, we learn things as he does. The problem is that this view is one-sided, because Smiley knows everything that pieces the puzzle together and we only see it when the filmmakers want us to. This makes it impossible to figure the plot out on your own. Instead of being invited to take part in finding out whodunnit, you’re simply required to sit there and watch Smiley do his thing.

The biggest problem with the fluidity of the film is the way that Smiley’s thoughts and memories are revealed to us. We’re never told when we’re seeing one of his flashbacks. Instead, confusing things are shown on screen that turn ‘Tinker’ into a non-linear mess that never clues you into when it will or has jumped around.

There are so many code names and character names to keep track of that the film leaves you in a constant state of confusion – all of it completely unnecessary. Being lost leads to a loss of interest. When that happens, the few should-be thrilling scenes carry no tension or weight. Unless you’ve been prepped by reading plot synopses, or have the genius brain of a rocket scientist, you’ll probably give up trying to follow the story less than halfway through.

Amidst all that’s wrong with the movie, I have to give the director (Tomas Alfredson) credit for the fantastic style of filmmaking that he applies to it. Visually, this film is brilliant. Unfortunately, just like his last feature (‘Let the Right One In‘), this one has a ton of pacing and editing problems that bog it down.

Aside from Gary Oldman and Tom Hardy (whose role is much too small), every actor who should give a noteworthy performance doesn’t. And the actors from whom you expect nothing are the ones worth mentioning, especially Benedict Cumberbatch.

Months ago, it seemed like ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ was being pushed as an Oscar frontrunner. Now, after having seen it, I have no idea what all the buzz was about. What should be a fantastic film wasted by its pretentious complexity, convoluted story and lack of exposition. The only award I’d consider ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ for is Biggest Letdown.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆


  1. JM

    ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ is at 90 on RT, and 88 on MC.

    Have you read John le Carre?

    Convolution and lack of exposition is his game.

    How does this rank within the le Carre-on-film genre?

    The Tailor Of Panama
    A Murder Of Quality
    The Russia House
    Little Drummer Girl
    Smiley’s People
    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1980)
    The Looking Glass War
    The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

    And why were you expecting nothing from Benedict Cumberbatch?

    Have you not seen Sherlock?

    If you graduated film school in ’08, what does that make you, 24?

    Read all 22 John le Carre novels, and review this film again in 20 years.

      • Luke Hickman

        I think everyone will like the counter-argument coming next week. It’s pretty good. You’ll get both angles.

        I’m 31, don’t like reading (therefore I won’t be reading ANY of le Carre’s novels), and frankly don’t want to watch this boring movie again. I know that a lot of people are loving it, but it’s not my cup of tea. I know why people love it, but I don’t love those same things.

        Wait until next week when you read the post from Aaron and I. We really hash out what makes this movie tick and what style of filmmaking you have to appreciate in order to enjoy it.

    • Drew

      Luke has stated that he is 31 years of age.

      This doesn’t diminish your point at all. Just thought you would be interested in that little tidbit.

      I completely agree with everything you say here.

      I saw ‘Tinker’ and thought it was absolutely brilliant. Easily one of the best five films I have seen this year.

    • Drew

      Also, do you find it interesting that Luke can give ‘The Ides of March’ 5 stars, and then give ‘Tinker’ 2 stars?

        • ‘Ides’ was your average political “thriller.” Politicians acting like jackasses and reaffirming the truth that we already knew about them in the first place.

          • Luke Hickman

            Did you completely overlook the smart script and performances? It’s funny that you didn’t find ‘The Ides of March’ thrilling, yet I did, and you ‘Tinker’ thrilling, but I didn’t.

            I guess we have opposing views on what thrilling constitutes.

          • @Luke: I’d argue that ‘Tinker had a smart script and performances, did you overlook them? As for ‘Ides’ it’s an average, but forgettable movie. I didn’t find anything amazing about it.

            @JM: I would say recently ‘Adjustment Bureau.’ Luke loved it, but for me it’ll be near the top of my Worst of the Year List.

  2. Well crap, I was all geared up to go see this, but apparently it hasn’t opened in my area yet. Ferchrissakes, it’s not like I live in Podunkville, Nebraska. Boston is a major market.

    I can’t find any indication online of where the film HAS opened (presumably New York & L.A.), and no indication that it’s even going to get a national release. Is Focus Features trying to bury this?