Cast: George Smiley (Gary Oldman), Bill Haydon "Tailor" (Colin Firth), Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), Control (John Hurt), Percy Alleline "Tinker" (Toby Jones), Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Roy Bland "Soldier" (Ciarán Hinds)
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Theatrical release: 01/06/2012 DVD Date: 03/20/2012
Rating: R Running Time: 127 minutes
Note(s): Screenplay written by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré.
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Review: John le Carré has written a large number of espionage thrillers and one of his best known is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, originally published in 1974 and adapted several years later by the BBC into a 6-part television mini-series. A former spy himself — John le Carré is actually a pen name used by David John Moore Cornwell, who began writing when he still worked for British intelligence — he intimately knows the environment in which he sets his stories.
The lead character in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman. Smiley appears in minor roles in several of le Carré's early books, but is front and center in this one, the first of what is often considered to be the "Karla Trilogy". The setup is simple: there is a suspected Soviet mole in MI6 — referred to as "The Circus" by insiders — and Smiley, a "retired" operative, is asked to expose him.
One of the problems with this film is that it assumes the viewer is familiar with not only the character of Smiley but the circumstances by which he came to be "retired" and recruited for the mission … and of the lingo used by the operatives. I am usually appreciative of minimal backstories, but in this case I think a bit more background information would have helped.
Smiley approaches his assignment with caution. Clearly he doesn't want to give away anything that might cause the mole to bolt, but he has to reach out to and trust someone to help navigate the waters. He chooses an ambitious young operative to work with, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), and they make for a good partnership. But this tippy-toeing around the case causes problems with the film: it proceeds at a snail's pace. A complicating factor is the near constant change in not only point of view but also timeframe (past and present). Too, there are a lot of characters to keep track of. This film requires near constant attention and a great deal of patience. And it helps if you've read the book, or at least have brushed up on the character and story ahead of time.
I did like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — there are no commas in the film title — but more from a storyline perspective than a filmmaking one. The performances are quite good from all the principals, and the washed-out grayish scenes clearly evoke the period of the Cold War. I understand this is really a character study at its core and yet I also kept expecting — hoping? — the pace would pick up and provide more of a punch towards the end, something that never happened.