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‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ a Dull and Flabbergasting Mess

by Eric Melin on January 6, 2012

in Reviews,Video Reviews

This review originally appeared in shorter form on KSNT-NBC, KTKA-ABC, and KTMJ-FOX, Kansas First News.

Tinker-Tailor-Soldier-Spy-Poster-2011Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the movie adaptation of John Le Carre’s famous 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet double agent at the top of the ladder in the British secret service. A restrained Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, the man who is charged with figuring out who the mole is.

The audience, however, is challenged with trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Unless you have previous knowledge of the book or BBC miniseries (or unless you are taking copious notes), this may be *ahem* difficult to say the least.

When people use the word “chilly” to describe Cold War movies, they’re usually trying to be clever, but here it really applies—to the film’s ultimate detriment.

You see, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looks fantastic. Tomas Alfredson, who directed the formalistic horror delight Let the Right One In, has a distinctive knack for composition and movement. The set design and cinematography of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is very stylish and each shot is meticulously composed for this very uptight British sterile look.

Tinker-Tailor-Soldier-Spy-oldmanBut the movie is sterile too.

Calling it a thriller is being too kind. It unfolds at a glacial pace with no urgency whatsoever and most of the characters are so repressed that the actors playing them—especially Colin Firth—seem asleep.

There’s something to be said for a film plotted with clever twists and turns, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s dense flashback-flash-forward structure and complete lack of outward emotion make it almost incomprehensible.

Add to that the fact that most of the “action” isn’t shown and only talked about by a multitude of taciturn main characters with ulterior motives and you have a tough recipe for a thriller. After all, suspense is created by knowing the stakes and being able to comprehend how they rise as the conflict deepens.

Alfred Hitchcock once said “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?” Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is hellbent on creating drama out of only the dull bits — and as interesting as the movie is to look at, it’s not very suspenseful at all.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes for The Pitch. He’s former President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls, Ultimate Fakebook, and Truck Stop Love . He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alan Rapp January 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Why do you hate the British?


2 Erik van Haaren January 6, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Your review is spot on. The parallel of the book to the movie is that both are pretty difficult to follow. The luxury of the book is that you can re-read portions until you get it, Precisely what I just did in anticipation of this release. Too bad, I really wanted this to be better.


3 Brian Kelly January 7, 2012 at 3:34 am

I agree 99%, except that the movie doesn’t even remotely look fantastic — it looks deliberately drab, dull and boring. Which it is.


4 Vaughn Fry January 7, 2012 at 4:50 am

In terms of Rock Fists, I’m a reluctant down.

There’s a TON of subtext at work. Did you notice how Peter was gay? Did you see George’s wife cheating on him? How about the symbolism in leaving the lift’s door open?

Those are fine tidbits, but like you said you have to be a scholar on the subject to keep track of the events in this film. There’s no rookie character for vets to teach, and therefore the audience can’t learn. A movie about a bunch of brain surgeon who don’t have to tell each other how to do surgery would have the same effect.

Did I ever tell you about how my film festival rejected Let the Right One In? We had an early subtitled version with dumbed down dialogue. But beyond that I despised the hospital fire scene. It was a wasted moment to introduce an formidable adversary, make the plot compelling. Instead it was like a boy having a superhero best friend.


5 Film_Shark January 7, 2012 at 5:10 am

I agree. This movie is so confusing. There are so many characters accused of being the mole that you are overwhelmed. I kept looking at my watch. I wanted this film to end.


6 Michael Dalton January 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm

As a sixteen year old raised on the latest Hollywood blockbusters I am surprised that I seem to be the only commenter to not only like the movie but be gripped by it. Yes the film is gorgeous visually but the performances deserve more credit than highlighted in the review and these comments, Mark Strong in particular gives underrated work here, the tragedy and emotion of the piece is in his facial expressions. Having watched it twice, I genuinely felt like I understood without having read the book or seen the series (Although now I want to) the closing montage I thought was sensational, bringing the movie to a really satisfying close. I understand the complaints but for me the film worked and is in my top ten of the year.

My review- http://www.movieparliament.com/tinker-tailor-soldier-spy.html

BTW Eric, big fan of Scene Stealers, been following you since the J.D. days


7 Wilheim Comyn January 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm

I am an avid movie goer and consider myself a serious critic of fine films over the years. Gary Oldman is one of my favorite actors, but this has got to be one of the worst outings of his career. He was simply out-of-place playing George Smiley. There is a huge difference between Alec Guinness in his heyday and the character that Mr. Oldman portrayed in this latest venture. Keeping a British stiff upper lip was never more boring. I had to fight in order to stay awake till the end credits, and was relieved when I finally got to leave the theater. It felt as if I had just left the dentist’s office from having my teeth cleaned.


8 Nick January 8, 2012 at 6:01 pm

I have yet to see this, but want too; I wonder where the disconnect is in all other critics and you on this one…. a rare departure other than in the obscure. Can only do one thing and that is to see it for my self.


9 Eric Melin January 9, 2012 at 12:45 am

Absolutely, Nick. See it for yourself. I really appreciate the discussion here, everybody. What’s interesting is that I disqualified it from being successful as a suspense flick but many critics I’ve talked to appreciated it as a character drama. I’ll agree that as a portrait of sad and lonely people who thought they were fighting for something noble, it’s a bit more successful. I suppose it portrays the ravages a job like this takes on one’s personal life, but again I go back to the muted tone as a poor choice, ultimately obstructing much of the drama, even as I understand why that choice was made…


10 Philip January 9, 2012 at 2:44 am

I wa really looking forward to this movie. The reviews and radio ads hooked me. My wife and I love well written suspense. She trused me and off we went.
It became one bad occurrence after another.
I’m referring to our talking in the movie, which we don’t tolerate from others. “didn’t that guy die? Was that a Staged shooting?” ” he killed a mother who was breast feeding a baby.” “do you follow this” ” No.” “Why is he swimming with his glasses on?”. “I don’t know, why are they spending time showing this” “let’s take a deep breath and let this plot come to us.

Well, the plot never showed up and we went home, got on the web and found this review.
We are so glad that we were not the only ones who left with a cartoon bubble over our heads that said “Huh?”


11 Eric Melin January 18, 2012 at 9:33 am

Phillip- I like what you said about “letting this plot come to us.” It doesn’t happen in this movie. In most films, they drop multiple visual hints and other breadcrumbs to keep you in the game, but not this one. If you miss one line or don’t know understand the context of one conversation, you could miss an major plot point, or reason for suspense. Frustrating for sure. I don’t think thriller need to be dumbed down at all. I think Alfredson should have done a more effective job telling his story and making the stakes known for each level of “suspense.”


12 iD January 9, 2012 at 2:53 am

As I read the reviews of this film I am shocked at how favorable they were. I finally found truth in your sober review of this snore of a flick. Perhaps I need to rent it and multi task at the same time by cleaning out my closet to enjoy the geriatric pace. The movie is pretty gorgeous..and the cinematography is what kept me in my seat. You must be familiar with the book the BBC Series and everything else so you have some pre-existing compassion for the story and its characters I hope because I was not interested in it at all. I hate when movies are so assuming they leave you out of the film like an uninvited guest at the dinner table. Cold War indeed.
This movie was beautiful but boring, Colin Firth who I usually absolutely adore bored me to tears but not more than Gary did. He was the ultimate snore.
This movie is a specific film for specific people. Preferably Pale, Male and Stale.


13 Eric Melin January 18, 2012 at 9:20 am

iD- It really was impenetrable most of the time from a suspense standpoint. Colin Firth was especially going for stoic repression, or something like that, I guess. which is OK as long as everybody else ISN’T going for the same thing…ha!


14 Rob January 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm

(I haven’t read the books or seen the TV series)

The film is (without exaggeration) the most difficult film to follow I have ever seen. It has dozens of characters (each of which I cared less about than the last) who talk to each other, in meetings and while walking, and at other times. They talk about people, places, events that we don’t see, understand or care about.

The plot; basically there is a Soviet spy in our outfit, you have to find him Gary, if you don’t… something negative will happen. No rush with finding the spy though. take your time, do plenty of talking & thinking first. We’ll get him eventually, old chap.

What is at stake? Who is/are the good guy(s)? Why should we care if they succeed or fail? Is there a beginning, middle & end? Is there a main character arc? Does anything happen?

An exercise I read in a movie review once; Think of one of the characters in this movie and describe them WITHOUT mentioning their appearance (physical or clothes) or their job. Describe their traits, convictions, flaws, growth through the course of the film etc. You’ll have your work cut out for you with this one. A lot of the characters will be the same; uninteresting, sad, suspicious.

I like when a film trys something different & doesn’t involve pointless car chases & other gimmicks, but it has to be engaging too. And involve the viewer; don’t spoon-feed us but we have to understand the plot & whats at stake to become invested in the proceedings.This film is like a condescending in-joke of epic proportions. If you haven’t prior knowledge of the story, this film isn’t going to bring you any closer to understanding it.


15 Eric Melin January 18, 2012 at 9:25 am

Rob- You hit the nail on the head about the film being a series of conversations and thing happening offscreen. Yes, I understand it was deliberate. It can work, it just didn’t work for this thriller. If you’ve ever seen “Thirteen Days,” a terrific true story about the Cold War narrowly being averted that manages to be suspenseful even though you already know the outcome, you’ll know that a bunch of government guys talking in a room CAN be thrilling. But not when you are obscuring all of your stakes.


16 Jutt January 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm

To be generous, this movie was the equivalent of sitting in a beautiful library for 2 hours but not being able to read any books. There was an unrelenting dullness that completely trumped my care for the characters or plot to the point that I wanted to just be put out of my misery, i.e. get up and walk out of the theater. But I didn’t leave, instead -like the scene when Mark Strong’s character is tortured by sound and sleep deprivation by the Russians- I was tortured by a sense of desperately waiting for something to happen only to find that when something actually did happen, albeit in fitting undramatic fasion, I could have cared less.

Its a shame because I really wanted to like this movie.


17 Eric Melin January 18, 2012 at 9:28 am

Jutt- I did too. It was hard to care much about Smiley’s (Oldman) marital problems or the implied homosexual relationship between Firth and Strong’s characters because I was too busy trying to unravel a labyrinthine plot made more obscure by the constant shuffling of time. I felt like the way that last moment was shot that it was supposed to be moving, but it certainly was not because , like you, I was completely out of the game.


18 Ben January 17, 2012 at 10:42 am

Eric I agree with you and I’m glad you are critical of this movie. I wanted to like it as much as everyone who praised it, but I thought it was ridiculous.

How cheesy was the slow tear that runs down that guy’s cheek after he shoots colin firth in the end? And how did he get a rifle onto the secure compound anyway? And why exactly did he shoot him?

For some reason I was the only one of my group to dislike the movie, though when we discussed it none of them could explain the plot. Some thought that colin firht that and guy were lovers. Some thought that Control had been poisoned in the beginning. Some didn’t even know that Control had died. I’d consider it all as intruige if it were just a movie and not obviously a failed attempt to cram novels and a TV miniseries into a movie.

I think a lot of people were seduced by the style of it, but I agree with some of the other posters that the style was boringly over-styled. Every character was buried under style. The distracting comb-over and died blonde hair and everything.

Plus, was Gary Oldman really “amazing” in this movie? No. He was deliberate and that’s all. And how can he just stand in front of his big picture window at night with the lights on while he’s leading a covert investigation of the country’s top security ring?

I didn’t care about the characters or the mystery because none of it made sense and it was all too fast and shallow to draw me in. What a dumb movie, ha!


19 Eric Melin January 18, 2012 at 9:33 am

Ben- I think he shot him because he was betrayed, but I don’t blame you for not picking up on it. I only did on my second viewing–ha! This is my favorite part of your comment: “I was the only one of my group to dislike the movie, though when we discussed it none of them could explain the plot.”
I have a theory that many of the supporters of this movie who HAVEN’T read the book or seen the miniseries didn’t really catch all the plot machinations and were impressed by the look of the film and felt like certain scenes were supposed to be suspenseful because of the way they were shot or a musical cue. In other words, ask them why a scenes was suspenseful, and they wouldn’t be able to tell you.
This has a couple of exceptions of course: The scene where Strong is lured into a trap and the scene where Cumberbatch has to smuggle out the files are very well done.


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