Probably going to be my last long review posted on here (I hope to get a site soon)...
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Looking at the cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is simply thrilling. With each new name, I became more and more excited by the prospect of this movie; even for the everyman, the cast is one to marvel over: Count Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Dobby the House-Elf, the Elephant Man, Orson Welles, the best part of Inception, the sadistic villain from Kick-Ass and the King of England himself. How can you not love merely a theoretical cast like that? How could this movie be nothing but sublime brilliance? How fantastic is it? I kept the third and final question in mind and the movie answered. Alas, it was neither the answer I was expecting nor the one I wanted.
The movie starts with John Hurt cautiously opening a door and peering out at the visitor waiting outside. As both the visitor and the viewer enters Hurt’s quarters, the viewer gets their first taste of the film’s look; I was a bit worried that the film had gathered some dust, or the projectionist had been so desperate to urinate that he did it on the film prints, hoping in vain that nobody would notice. 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson and based upon John le Carré’s book of the same name, has a most distinctive look. A dust-like substance is scattered over the screen, which displays dimly-lit corridors, unnerved yet exceedingly well-dressed M16 agents and an authentic-looking early 70’s Britain.
Hurt is the world-weary controller of M16, and is looking for a mole in cahoots with the Soviets. The mole, we learn, is “...right at the top of the circus”; and as is expected, it’s up to our protagonist to find out who this mole is. The protagonist is George Smiley (Gary Oldman): semi-retired, middle-aged, and like Hurt’s Control, world-weary, yet in a much more subtle way. Smiley and his loyal but nervous assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), work together to work out who the elusive mole is; lengthening the movie’s running time are several in-depth flashbacks and a subplot involving Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), a spy-turned-schoolteacher.
It’s hard to write what I think of this movie; nonetheless, I have no doubt that the performances in this movie are some of the finest I’ve seen in the cinema for years. Hurt is as superb as usual, his brow permantely creased and his expression sometimes forlorn; Mark Strong is equally superb, and he is able to balance his character’s inner pain yet fatherly warmth towards his schoolchildren wonderfully; the versatile Toby Jones’ portrayal of a raging Scottish agent is only briefly seen yet somewhat memorable; Cumberbatch is very good as Guillam, and the scene where he bursts in tears due to his frustration which he can no longer hold in is downplayed but unforgettable; Tom Hardy is excellent as Ricki Tarr, a spy cast out due to his failings who became infatuated with a missing Russian woman; and Oldman himself once again immerses almost magically into the role of Smiley. He makes Smiley his own in the most supremely subtle and dry of ways, but the critics have come to expect this of the actor who is both Commissioner Gordon and Count Dracula.
Yet despite this crème de la crème of British acting, if you will, I didn’t give a damn about the story and its various, loosely connected plot threads, and didn’t care where it was going. On the whole, the characters aren’t engaging and wholly forgettable, and the ending (referred to by some as a brilliant sequence) is predictable, abrupt, and I didn’t care about what happened to the secret villain, or his assassin, or the hero or his sidekick. I wouldn’t care if George Smiley became a millionaire by the end or was blown to bits.
The actors all do their best, but the disjointed script is horribly subpar, and to use a more over-the-top example, the late and great Orson Welles could appear in a horrible movie even if he did every acting trick in the book. Why? Because every good actor needs an equally good writer; it doesn’t matter if you’re Gary Oldman or even F Murray Abraham, if the script is bad, the story and characters just won’t click.
The anti-hero Smiley doesn’t get lines until about twenty minutes in, and the character itself only gets an ounce of depth due to Oldman portraying the character as someone who’s seen too much, and because of a moment unique and refreshing compared to the rest of the film where Smiley is shown to be a bit vicious.
The only characters I actually cared about were woefully minor characters: Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke), a retired researcher who yearns for the good old days and tells Smiley “if it’s bad, don’t come back” when she learns from him that there is a mole; and a bespectacled schoolboy on the plump side who is the customary ‘new kid’ at the school Jim Prideaux starts teaching at. The lonely schoolboy’s attempts at befriending Prideaux (which all come to a painfully bitter end that made me actually feel something, unlike the rest of the movie) are some of the few well-executed scenes in the entirety of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, assisted of course by the aforementioned brilliance of actor Mark Strong.
In all fairness, the cinematography is elegant and there is one shot which sticks in my mind, showing one of M16’s central agents going down in a lift which opens to reveal Guillam outside; it’s not only surprising but the staging of the scene is slightly surreal. Also, whilst not directly linked with the cinematography, there is a great yet disturbing set piece in the opening, showing a baby sucking its mother’s breast, yet the mother has been shot dead. The sets are occasionally very good, and the visuals are able to attain a suitable greyish atmosphere, but the effect wears off quickly. Despite the positives aspects of the movie’s more stylised areas, the music is exceedingly forgettable (I honestly can’t remember even a snippet of the score).
When the movie neared its end and the obvious ‘bad guy’ was revealed to be the villain before getting a dull comeuppance, I became more interested in the cinema’s ceiling lights. There was a point where I didn’t care that a supporting character had just been killed, as I was too busy learning the thrilling fact that the portion of the ceiling I could see had four rows of three when it came to the lights.
For once, I’ll agree with the casual cinemagoers. This is a boring movie. Maybe it’s because I watched it after a long day, maybe it’s because the cinema attendants were so lousy the time spent trying to get tickets and snacks was longer than the movie’s running time, or maybe (and most probably) the script by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan is simply foul. It’s a waste of time for all involved, and whilst moments of cinematic beauty try to creep in now and again, the script callously shoots them down and spits on their remains. Disappointing, dull and dreadfully written, this is one to be missed.