Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is like a teacher who's lecturing his or her magnum opus. The student, its audience, must be paying diligent attention to receive any sort of real satisfaction from the labyrinthine lesson being taught. Absorbing and fully understanding this movie is work. Difficult work.
The adaptation of John le Carre's novel, which follows one man's burdensome task of finding a double agent within Britain's Intelligence during the Cold War, is a film that makes no attempt to dumb down its subject matter for a movie-going public obsessed with CGI-filled blockbusters. Told in a totally non-linear narrative, Tinker Tailor is sometimes harder to follow than the pontifications found in a David Foster Wallace book.
I imagine my 85-year-old grandmother trying to watch this film, confused, and walking out of the theater before the second act begins. I imagine my teenage cousins dismissing it as boring and comparing it to doing homework. You must give your full and undivided attention to process every minute detail -- it could be a clue!
Better think twice before that large popcorn and soda.
Tinker Tailor follows George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a recently disgraced member of Britain's MI6 after he and his boss (John Hurt) are ousted when a mission ends in bloodshed. He spends his days solemnly watching television, until he gets a call bringing him out of retirement; there's a Soviet mole deep within the Intelligence. His task is to find the traitor among his ex-coworkers and bring him in.
The four men (Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones and David Dencik) he suspects are the leaders of what they call "The Circus" during the Cold War. They're at the tippy-top of the spy hierarchy, but there's no James Bond archetypes here. These men are uncharismatic, tea-drinking, bread-buttering desk jockeys in beige suits. They're also responsible for the safety of every soul in Great Britain.
Throughout Smiley's investigation, you put on your Sherlock cap and become your own voyeuristic detective. I thought I knew who the mole was within the first 20 minutes and ended up being completely wrong. There's so many things going on and so many potential clues and spy trickery. There's ticker tape wire transmissions, phone taps, classified data-stealing, false reveals -- it's all very cool. It's like one of those "choose your own destiny and turn to page 78" books you read when you were a kid.
Oldman, barely recognizable from his recent outings in The Dark Knight and the Harry Potter movies, gives us a masterful performance. This is an actor who has played Sid Vicious, Dracula and Lee Harvey Oswald in his career and has never received one measly Oscar nomination. His portrayal of the redemption-seeking Smiley is one of restrained intensity and deserves recognition this awards season.
In his investigation, he politely interrogates and questions with vitriol not in his emotions, but in the way he keeps his cool. In the best scene of the film, he's cornered one of his suspects on a landing strip when a plane comes into the shot and lands right in front of them. Smiley doesn't even flinch.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, known best for the antithesis to modern vampire movies, Let The Right One In, creates an atmospheric feeling of being in Great Britain in 1974. From the cars, the decor, the light sepia and brown tones -- it all feels genuine, and I was negative 14 years old. It's also seems like it's always raining, although it never is. There's a constant impending dreariness, which I hope was intentional.
Tinker Tailor is one of the best films of 2011 because it takes such an outdated premise, skews the narrative's timeline and creates something eventful. It assembles an ensemble of some of the finest living actors without compromising the story. You don't even need Jon Bon Jovi (New Year's Eve, I'm looking at you)! It may make your brain hurt, but it's not a movie you're soon going to forget.
For all the energy you exert , you may be disappointed with the film's abrupt, underwhelming conclusion and discovery of the double agent. I certainly was at first. But then again, in super secretive espionage like this, which I'm sure is going on right now in hundreds of soundproof rooms through the world; does it end in an explosion or does it end with a whimper?
Follow Chris Krapek on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChrisKrapek