Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Focus Features, R)

film tinker_75Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a slow, moody spy film that focuses on character and atmosphere rather than explosions and gunfights.

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At a time when I didn’t think I could be more sick of vampire movies, Tomas Alfredson made Let the Right One In, a slow, moody vampire film with strong characters and a great sense of atmosphere. It was a breath of fresh air. Now, with spies infiltrating every corner of pop culture, he has made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a slow, moody spy film that focuses on character and atmosphere rather than explosions and gunfights. It is a period piece set during the Cold War, and it feels like a film that would have been made in the ’60s or ’70a. The opening credits play out to a mellow jazzy tune that immediately sucked me into the time period. I love films from that era, and was more than ready to follow it wherever it wanted to take me.

The story is straightforward enough. The head of the British Secret Service fears that there is a mole sharing high-level secrets with the Russians. He asks his friend George Smiley to start an investigation and find the mole. It’s a good thing the story is simple because it allowed me to follow the basic plot from scene to scene, despite the fact that I was frequently struggling to keep up.

The film is an adaptation of a novel by John Le Carré, which was previously adapted into a seven-part miniseries for the BBC. Condensing that story into a feature running time means that it is incredibly dense, with many characters not having much screen time. The film consists entirely of men sitting in rooms talking, which is fine, except it took me quite a while to get a sense of who and what they were talking about. After my screening, I saw that they were giving out very nice pamphlets, which included a diagram detailing the major players and a mini glossary of terminology used in the film. I was disappointed that I hadn’t grabbed one on my way in.

It helps that this film has an extraordinary cast. George Smiley is played by Gary Oldman, who effortlessly conveys a sense of intelligence as well as a sense of exhaustion from a life in the Secret Service. John Hurt, who as far as I can tell has never been young, is always wonderful in everything; here, he manages to be playful and charming one moment, and utterly serious and in control the next. My man-crush Tom Hardy has never played the same role twice, as far as I can tell, and here is probably the most human character in the story. Supporting players include Benedict Cumberbatch from the BBC show Sherlock; Mark Strong, not playing a villain for once; Toby Jones, another character actor who I’ve never seen be bad; and Colin Firth, who makes quite the impression with very few lines of dialogue. The familiar faces make it easier to keep track of everything, and the performances keep each scene compelling, even if I wasn’t always sure what information was being conveyed.

When I say that I had trouble following the film, I don’t mean it as a critique. I was reminded of All the President’s Men, which is a great movie that had me similarly lost the first couple times I saw it. I appreciate the attention to detail, and I was never bored. The performances and the craftsmanship carried me through and convinced me that it is a film worth exploring. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is certainly a good film. Until I see it again, though, I can’t be sure of just how good. | Sean Lass

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