Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" a maddeningly dense slow-burn

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
127 min., rated R.
Grade: C +
With the popularity of Ian Fleming's 007 and his suave, shaken, not stirred, cool, moviegoers have become so dependent on Bond-y action and nifty gadgets that the espionage goings-on tend to take a backseat. But now, the spy world has never been so smart and challenging as it is in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," the second adaptation of the famously dense John le Carré novel. This material was first covered in a six-hour miniseries from 1979 that starred Alec Guinness, but hopefully it was less impenetrable in its expanded length than it is here.

During the Cold War in 1973, the head of the British Intelligence (or "the Circus") known as Control (John Hurt) sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Budapest to meet a general for information. But after Jim flees, he's shot and the mission is blown, forcing Control and trench-coated MI6 agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) into retirement. Soon thereafter, Smiley is rehired to sniff out a Soviet mole in their midst. He has a loyal right-hand man, Peter Guillam (the awesomely named Benedict Cumberbatch), to help him weed out the traitor from the Circus staff—Percy (Toby Jones), or "Tinker," Bill (Colin Firth), or "Tailor," Roy (Ciaran Hinds), or "Soldier," and Toby (David Dencik), or "Poor Man." Or, it amounts to a bunch of old chaps talking. 

With a film like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," it's best to first give credit where credit is due. Gary Oldman acts from the inside as the ironically named Smiley, providing a terrifically reserved and laconic performance. Surrounding him is a who's who of the top British actors working today. Everyone is strictly like a chess piece with a poker face, but sometimes, a performer will tap into their dry British wit. Tom Hardy has the most emotive scenes and brings the film a few jolts of life as Ricki Tarr, a field operative who has fallen for a Russian. Aesthetically, this is a great-looking, meticulously detailed film. Director Tomas Alfredson (2008's snowbound "Let the Right One In") has quite a handle on creating a palpable chilliness and atmosphere, both in look and tone, and his go-to cinematographer (Hoyte Van Hoytema) impeccably shoots with rich texture from a gray and brown palette.

Now for the negatives. The dense plotting unfolds through such a sea of molasses that even if you're drowning without a flotation device, the film never throws us a bone. So much information is thrown at us to process, including characters' names and code names, information concerning "treasure," and the workings of "Operation Witchcraft," that having an Excel spreadsheet on hand wouldn't sound like an exaggeration. Slow pacing can captivate a viewer and should build to something, but Alfredson's film is too consistently languid and measured, lacking the sense of dramatic urgency that it needed. We should care about finding out the identity of the mole, but by the time "he" steps out from behind Door #5, the response is more of a shrug than a gasp. 

To dumb it down for all moviegoers, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is almost like a super-smart Honors Student making you work overtime at a dull tutoring session. (A venti-sized coffee from Starbucks with a shot of espresso wouldn't hurt.) It's maddeningly overcomplicated, affectless, so quiet that you could hear a pin drop, and yet so well-acted and classed-up with its retro-fade visual style. As most films churned out of Hollywood could use more subtlety, this would-be thriller could have used a few more gunshots and a big shot of adrenaline. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" will either draw you in or shut you out. As spoken by Smiley himself, "I'm very tired and all I want to do is go home and get into bed." Point taken.

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