Saturday at the Movies – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Great spy movies are a rare treat. They get you involved in the story on more than one level, as you keep an eye on the characters, an eye on the twisting story, and a number of possible outcomes in your mind. And I had as much fun at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as I did at some of the great cold war spy movies, but the movie had a smart, confident sense of style and pacing that will keep you involved on an aesthetic level.

Tinker, Tailor, Solider Spy is an adaptation of John le Carre’s cold-war novel featuring George Smiley, an enigmatic operative in the British intelligence service. It’s been adapted as a TV miniseries in 1979, but this movie takes full advantage of its large screen format, with visuals and performances worthy of a major movie, without sacrificing the complexity and texture of a good, old fashioned spy story.

When the cast list came up, I couldn’t believe the names I’d just read. I’d known that Gary Oldman was in the movie – and he delivered an absolutely amazing performance. But I didn’t know to expect John Hurt (of Alien), Ciaran Hinds (of Munich and Rome), Benedict Cumberbatch (of BBC’s Sherlock), Mark Strong (of Kick-Ass and Sherlock Holmes), Tom Hardy (soon to play Batman’s nemesis Bane) and Colin Firth (of many things, not least of which was The King’s Speech last year). Without drawing too much attention to themselves, each of them delivered amazing, selfless performances.

While the story presented a number of complicated twists, fundamentally the setup was simple: Control, the head of intelligence at the British government, has realized his government houses a Soviet mole somewhere at the top. He entrusts George Smiley, portrayed with remarkable restraint by Gary Oldman, with finding this mole, rooting him out.

The watchword of the movie is discipline. Every scene is incredibly, deliberately crafted – from the office parties, to the interrogations, to the infiltrations, to the quiet personal conversations. The scenery is presented with calm confidence, no fast-paced establishing shots like the still fun, but hyperactive Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Whether it’s the old-world majesty of Istanbul or Budapest, or the drab office blocks of 1973 London, the world of this movie speaks for itself.

And the characters are rich and complex, with wardrobe, mannerisms, and expressions that tell entire stories before an actor even opens his or her mouth. Much like Mad Men, the movie excels at setting a scene using art direction to tell a whole story.

A final touch that spoke to me on a personal level was the movie’s depiction of the workings of a bureaucracy. My day job takes place in a bureaucratic context. So to see the almost unintentionally ego-driven, backstabbing machinations of the British civil service played out with only slight exaggeration gave the movie a very believable feel.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is fun, but it’s refined fun, and after seeing it, I felt like I’d had a complete meal of a movie. It should be coming to DVD in late March, and the original, slightly more complex TV miniseries adaptation is already out there for comparison. When you’re ready to treat yourself to a movie that engages your eyes, ears, and mostly your brain, this is the one to see!

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