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'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy': engaging espionage, critics say

December 9, 2011 |  2:07 pm

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The new Cold War spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" had its work cut out for it, first in condensing the 400 pages of John le Carré's 1974 novel into two hours of screen time, and then in surviving comparisons to the beloved 1979 BBC television adaptation. But with an ensemble cast led by Gary Oldman as a veteran British spy hunting down a double agent, the film is garnering many positive reviews.

The Times' Kenneth Turan says "Tinker Tailor" is "endlessly rich in incident, atmosphere and personality, a film that leaves us hanging on by the barest skin of our teeth as we try to figure out who is doing what to whom and why." It is, Turan writes, "perhaps the great spy tale of our time." Calling the film "masterfully directed," Turan praises Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") and his handling of "a superb ensemble cast." Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan also score points for "artfully compressing" Le Carré's novel.

In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis agrees that "Tinker Tailor" is "a superb new adaptation of the 1974 spy novel" and calls the film "a pleasurably sly and involving puzzler — a mystery about mysteries within mysteries." Dargis compares the film favorably to the 1979 miniseries starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Oldman manages to fill those shoes, delivering "a fascinatingly gripping performance that doesn’t so much command the screen, dominating it with shouts and displays of obvious technique, as take it over incrementally."

Rolling Stone's Peter Travers also has kudos for Oldman, whom he deems "one of the best actors on the planet." In "Tinker Tailor," Travers writes, "Oldman gives a performance that is flawless in every detail." The other actors are no slouches: John Hurt is "hypnotically conniving," Tom Hardy is "explosive," and Colin Firth is "electrifying." The result, according to Travers, is "easily one of the year's best films."

For USA Today film critic Claudia Puig, "Tinker Tailor" pulls off the tricky job of adapting spy fiction to the silver screen, maintaining the plot's intricate clockwork. " 'Tinker Tailor' requires close watching," Puig writes, "but viewers are rewarded with a moody, layered and involving thriller." Puig also commends Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography: "Scenes are beautifully photographed and intriguingly framed. Vivid details, like dusty light streaming into a flat, help to viscerally set the mood."

Not all critics are enamored with the film, however. Slate's Dana Stevens says the movie "condenses the book’s already thick atmosphere into pea-soup fog, and it makes the multi-stranded, timeframe-skipping plotline all but impossible to follow for newcomers." Stevens adds, "It’s murky almost to the point of impenetrability, rife with non sequiturs too random even to qualify as red herrings." Even so, Oldman "delivers what may be the performance of his career" in "a rigorously unshowy and therefore all the more demanding role."

In the spy game, it pays to keep one's eyes peeled. The same could be said when Oldman is on the screen and at his best.


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— Oliver Gettell

Photo: John Hurt (seated) and Gary Oldman in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Credit: Jack English / Focus Features