‘Tinker, Tailor’ explores the burden of information

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” directed by Thomas Alfredson and starring Gary Oldman, has the look and feel of a modern spy thriller, but it ultimately falls short of its potential, getting bogged down in lengthy dialogue and confusing spy jargon.

The film, based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré, begins sometime in the 1970s with the revelation that there is a mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service. After a failed attempt at luring a Hungarian general who potentially knew the identity of the mole, Control (John Hurt), the head of “the circus” as British Intelligence is known, and George Smiley (Oldman), his right hand man. After a politician gets wind that there may still be a mole, Smiley, now advantageously outside of the circus, is asked to investigate who the mole might be out of the highest ranking agents: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and Bill Haydon (Colin Firth).

The visual style feels crisp and distinct, and there are some brilliant moments. The film portrays a gray, rainy England, with a muted color palette. But of course, a spy film needs exotic locales, which come in the form of a dusty Istanbul and an even more gray and muted Soviet Hungary. The film sometimes plays with shallow focus. An important piece of information may be pulled into focus in parallel with a character taking notice of it. It the discovery of these details more visceral. I also particularly enjoyed how, after seeing Smiley buy new glasses, flashbacks were indicated by which frames he was wearing. It was a nice little touch. Gary Oldman’s performance is another highlight, even if it is not his most challenging role.

However, despite how nice the film looks, one thing overshadows the whole experience: there is simply way too much dialogue. Most of the film amounts to Gary Oldman talking to people. For something that should fit neatly into the spy thriller genre, there is surprisingly little traditional spy activity. Where are the handoffs? Where are the chases? Why is there not one forged piece of identification in the entire film? Without revealing too much, there is a fantastically tense scene where a character must steal a document from within the Secret Intelligence building. It was the one time in the movie where I can actually say I was on the edge of my seat. Ultimately the scene shows how more of this action would nicely break up all the dialogue. The dialogue itself is bogged down with code names and ill-explained jargon.A lot of information is thrown at the viewer, and the film can get confusing at times. This paradoxically made the film feel slow. I would zone out during the fast and confusing dialogue and then find myself lost and bored at what was happening in the next scene.

Even though the great bulk of dialogue, some themes do shine through, namely what happens when human emotion confronts the machinery of the Cold War. Again, I do not want to spoil anything, but two agents (therefore two men) are alluded to having been lovers at university. This adds a human element to the plot which is otherwise dominated by cold calculations. Other romances, peripheral and central, pepper the film with humanity without distracting from the intrigue. I will just say that while the machinery of the Cold War is in the end more powerful, human emotion gets the last laugh.

Overall, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” has the potential to be a great movie. It looks great, and has some great performances. However, the filmmakers needed to better adapt the material for the silver screen. The whole movie gets lost in hours of people talking. I came into the theater wanting at least a somewhat exciting spy thriller but left underwhelmed and frankly bored.

Nate is a junior. You can reach him at nblum1@swarthmore.edu.

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