Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy [2011]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
Roger Ebert's review -

Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (directed by Tomas Alfredson, screenplay by Brigit O'Conner and Peter Straughan) is a slow-moving, cerebral "chess game" style spy thriller faithful to the novel and book series created by John Le Carre involving his fictional hero George Smiley who Le Carre envisioned as a very different kind of spy to Ian Flemming's action oriented James Bond.  As such, while this movie will definitely have its enthusiasts who like true mysteries and who-done-its, I don't believe Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy will be for everybody.

The closest recent cinematic equivalent to this film that I can think of would be The Good Shepherd [2006] (directed by Robert De Niro and staring Matt Damon).  Indeed, just as The Good Shepherd centered around a specific (U.S.) intelligence fiasco (the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion), Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy is based on a of a true disaster in British Intelligence involving "the Cambridge Five."  These five were discovered to be moles spying for the Soviet Union from within the highest echelons of British Intelligence.  The disaster which played out in the 1950-1960s and threatened the integrity of the entire British intelligence establishment and arguably the security of the entire free world. (It was also a disaster referred to in The Good Shepherd).

So then how does one hunt for a mole in one's intelligence establishment?  How does one even begin to suspect that there is a mole present within one's ranks?  Well that's what this movie is about.  Set in the early 1970s, the members of "The Circus" (the nickname given to the top echelon of MI6 of British Intelligdnce) begin to really suspect that there is mole present among them after a mission to recruit a general in (Communist) Hungary went terribly wrong.  Not only did the Hungarian general make his meeting, but to the shock of everyone, his would-be British handler was actually shot, presumably killed and certainly taken away from that cafe' by the Hungarian/Russian agents who broke-up the planned meeting.  What happened?  How were the Hungarians/Russians tipped off?  Since this was going to be such a coup to get that Hungarian general to "flip" only a few people near the top of MI6 knew of the operation.  So who tipped them off?

So the head of "The Circus", nicknamed "Control" (played by John Hurt) assigns recently retired George Smiley (played by Gary Oldman) to investigate the question.  There are only a few people who could be the mole -- Percy Alleline (played by Toby Jones) codenamed by "Control" as "Tinker," Bill Hayden (played by Colin Firth)  codenamed "Taylor," Roy Bland (played by Cieran Hinds) codenamed "Soldier" and Toby Esterhase (played by Toby Dencik) codenamed "Poor Man" and presumably Smiley.  But "Control" gave him the assignment to find the mole.

Now each of these are powerful people (who could use their power to generally cover their tracks) and they've been associates/friends for years.  In this season of office Holiday/Christmas parties, I found some of the most poignant/interesting scenes in the movie to be precisely _those_ gatherings when normally reserved spies/bureaucrats "let their hair down" just a little bit (yes, slightly buzzed spy-masters can sing pop songs/show tunes just as bad as the rest of us ... ;-), and the tragedy of it all, as one realizes among these people, who all present thought they knew, was a traitor.

So the movie plays as a chess game but one with a definite human / tragic element.  No this movie is not for everybody.  I think that the "R" rating is appropriate, not only for the occasional (and largely unnecessary) scene involving sex or nudity, but mostly because the average teenager (to say nothing of preteen) would probably find the film deathly boring.  As a "date movie," I would imagine that it would be a "date killer" in 9/10 cases.  Still, someone (or couple) that likes a well-crafted if slow-moving "who done it" would probably really enjoy it.

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1 comment:

  1. The film was beautiful, but I can't easily say why. The direction, acting, production design and especially the music were all made and performed with meticulous technique. The sound was crisp, and I could follow the quiet Brit talk with no problem. Even though this film was hard to follow, I felt a tremendous sense of sadness at its end.