film review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy poster Gary OldmanTinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Those of you who know me will know, I’m not exactly a reader… but even I’ve heard of John le CarrĂ©’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I couldn’t tell you why though, just that – in my head – it’s an extremely famous and highly acclaimed spy novel.

With a class title.

Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.

In any case, I was looking forward to this film. Lordi know I was never going to read the book. Also, the anticipation was helped by the fact that Colin Firth is in it. If you read my Oscar predictions post this year or my review of A Single Man then you’ll know that I think he’s pretty damn fantastic.

The rest of the cast was impressive too, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Tom Hardy (who really stood out for me in Inception), Mark Strong, CiarĂ¡n Hinds. As was the first trailer I saw, I thought it looked… uncompromising. It’s not that I’m sick of films that pander to the audience and try to make things extra easy for them. I’m a big fan of the average, the clue’s in the title people! It’s just that I thought it might be nice to see a film that didn’t.

It turns out Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is absolutely uncompromising. It’s got an inherently complex story to tell you in a limited amount of time and if you can’t keep up well then… sucks to be you. It’s an interesting way to go.

As a result I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of it when I walked out of the theatre. My first thought was… well, that was great… but no-one’s gonna go see it. I mean that in the sense that, you need word of mouth to sell a film to a wide audience and even though I really liked it, I don’t know that I’d tell anyone I know to see it. Not because I don’t think they’ll follow it or because I think they won’t appreciate it. I just don’t know how entertaining it was.

It’s like, solving a puzzle. Ok, in practical terms it is literally watching someone else trying to solve a puzzle… but it’s a bit more than that. It’s like you have to solve the puzzle of how they are solving the puzzle. They have all the pieces and they’re trying to put them together – but you have to work out what the pieces are in order to see how they’re putting them together.

Does that make sense? I think it does.

Anyway, this all means that, in the end… when you’ve worked out what all the pieces were and you’ve seen them put them together, it’s very satisfying. But was it fun?

I guess that depends on how much you like puzzles.

In any case, like I said, I really liked it.

I think.

No, really, I did. Honestly, there are excellent performances all around. Also, it looks great. It’s directed by Tomas Alfredson and, together with his cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema from Let The Right One In, they have managed to create a mood… a pervasive feeling of urgency in every scene. You feel like, perhaps, there is some meaning in everything you can see in every place the film takes you. Or perhaps there isn’t. It’s all part of the puzzle.

I think that’s why I liked it. I never felt as though I was watching filler, padding to pass the time and confuse me. Whether everything we were presented with was relevant to the hunt or not (maybe it was? maybe it wasn’t?) it all felt like it -could- be important. I also liked that it didn’t bother to talk down to audience; that, if it did explain the language or terminology, it didn’t feel like it was done for our benefit, it was natural.

I think what I liked the most was that the… unravelling of the answer, the unfurling of the characters, was enough to hold interest, to move us along with the story. It didn’t need to be flashy, it’s not slick and shiny, dazzling us into admiring the pretty pictures as they danced before our eyes. It is a solid story, well told by a good director with a strong team and an excellent cast. What more do you need?

The one criticism I will make of it though, is that it’s very… dry. Which is not necessarily a bad thing… but, I suppose it lacks any levity to it. Which is a reason I would hesitate to recommend it to all. Not there should be comic relief, not that I expected it, but that, I don’t know, I feel like some audiences might need it?

I don’t know if I can make any other criticism of it. Since I haven’t read the book I don’t know any more than what I was told in the film. I don’t know if anything is missing. I have to imagine that some might say that it felt a bit rushed. After all, naturally you have to condense when adapting a book, and it was also a 7 part BBC series, so I can only reasonably assume that some already familiar with the story might like to spend more time with some of the characters? I don’t know… maybe?

Not me though. I thought it was all very effective. It worked for me. If you do go and see it, do tell me if it works for you.

Oh, actually, I might mention one thing… there are a lot of flashbacks. That might be good to know if you’re going in blind.



  1. comment-avatar
    CastorSeptember 13, 2011 - 4:58 am

    Damn, you already got to see this… We have to wait until December here in the US, I’m so jealous!

  2. comment-avatar
    dzsemszSeptember 17, 2011 - 6:58 am

    An incredibly garrulous piece of bullshit. Other than the fact that the reviewer liked it, nothing tangible, except of course the unfurling characters (gosh, that must look weird, as they unfurl, the poor things). Is that the purpose, or just to annoy readers who actually want to learn something?

  3. comment-avatar
    Nicola-tSeptember 17, 2011 - 11:46 am

    Hi Dzsemsz,

    Sorry you didn’t like the review however yes, that is the purpose of my site. To give my opinion. I specifically say in the “about” for this site that there are no spoilers in the reviews and that I don’t do extensive comparisons with other films – the site is to appeal to fresh viewers, it’s not a film buff site.

    Besides, I do mention various things about the film, I thought the cinematography and directorial style were excellent, I thought the performances were strong, I said that it specifically wasn’t slick and flashy – the story does the work. Also I gave the cue to viewers that they’ll need to realise there are flashbacks.

    If there’s aspects of the plot or other things you want to discuss I’m more than happy to do so in the comments but no spoilers in the review.


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