Monday, January 22, 2018
Movies

Review: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' more a thinker than a thriller

By Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

The secret agents in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy aren't Jason Bourne or James Bond. Understated in appearance and action, they dress in drab suits and barely raise their voices, much less punch or shoot their way out of a jam.

Suspicious glances and quiet deceit can kill just as easily.

John le Carré wrote the books on these Cold Warriors, British intelligence agents blending into the European scenery to guard against Russia's infiltration threat. As a former agent himself, le Carré drew from actual security protocol. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a movie devoted to his dense plotting, enigmatic characters and agency jargon, compressed into less than half the running time of the classic 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as inscrutable agent George Smiley.

The role is handed over to Gary Oldman, typically a dynamic actor who barely seems here, which may be the way real spies operate but isn't an exciting hub for a wheel of deception to spin around. Oldman mostly observes, listens and reacts with only faint changes in expression. Even when holding a gun Oldman barely moves. But you sense Smiley thinking through everything, and this movie throws a lot at viewers.

Code words and doublecrosses abound, so close attention must be paid. That will be easy for le Carré's readers, who'll appreciate a thinking man's thriller, handsomely designed and impeccably acted. But Tomas Alfredson's version will be a chore for others, so muted in comparison to modern action flicks that it feels glacial. Admiring the movie is easy; embracing it isn't.

The sophisticated skullduggery begins with a botched mission in Hungary, where British agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot and captured. The Russians knew what was coming, so a mole must be operating within the agency, code named "the Circus." The agency's supervisor, known only as Control (John Hurt), rehires the retired Smiley to identify the double agent, with a list of five inner circle suspects assigned code names from a nursery rhyme.

"Tinker" is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), whose close connections to the CIA are considered suspect. "Tailor" is Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who like Percy covets Control's rank. Roy Bland — a suitable name for everyone here — is "Soldier," played by Ciaran Hinds. "Poor Man" Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) is plain sneaky, and Smiley is "Beggarman." Control conveniently tapes their photos on chess pieces for ID and metaphor purposes.

Aside from Smiley, the suspects aren't as interesting as the younger, charismatic pawns in this spy game, dubbed "Scalphunters" for their dirty deeds in the field. Smiley finds a close office ally in Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), and a distant one in Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), whose Istanbul connections uncover information he can use to advance his career.

Alfredson wraps a riddle inside an enigma and ties it with a big gray bow, as disloyalties are exposed and flashbacks offering clues can't come fast enough. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is boldly dull in protest to modern movie tastes, and that alone may earn it more praise than it deserves.

Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365.

Comments
Extraordinary heroism deserves a less ordinary movie than ‘12 Strong’

Extraordinary heroism deserves a less ordinary movie than ‘12 Strong’

After 16 years of combat and counting, the war in Afghanistan gets a happy movie ending in 12 Strong, a thick slice of patriot porn.Based on a true story, 12 Strong rightfully celebrates the first U.S. Special Forces unit battling Taliban forces shel...
Published: 01/18/18
Updated: 01/19/18
What’s in theaters this week: ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ ‘Phantom Thread,’ ‘12 Strong’

What’s in theaters this week: ‘Call Me by Your Name,’ ‘Phantom Thread,’ ‘12 Strong’

OPENING FRIDAY:CALL ME BY YOUR NAMEAnother young man’s summer he’ll never forget is the core of Call Me By Your Name, a movie to likewise treasure. Luca Guadagnino’s coming out-of-age drama is a rare exception to familiar romantic rules.This film’s s...
Published: 01/17/18
Why ‘Phantom Thread’ is a bad fit as Daniel Day-Lewis’ final movie

Why ‘Phantom Thread’ is a bad fit as Daniel Day-Lewis’ final movie

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is passionless window-shop cinema, each static tableau lovingly arranged for display and easy dusting. Its centerpiece is a mannequin, albeit played by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose gift for keeping anything interestin...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18
Coming-of-age love story ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a rare treasure

Coming-of-age love story ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a rare treasure

Another young man’s summer he’ll never forget is the core of Call Me By Your Name, a movie to likewise treasure. Luca Guadagnino’s coming out-of-age drama is a rare exception to familiar romantic rules.This film’s same-sex summer fling shared by a te...
Published: 01/16/18
Liam Neeson’s ‘The Commuter’ is terribly pedestrian action

Liam Neeson’s ‘The Commuter’ is terribly pedestrian action

Liam Neeson’s transportation troubles continue in The Commuter, ironically one of his more pedestrian action efforts.This time Neeson’s misshapen nose for danger leads him onto a train, after Non-Stop air travel, Run(ning) All Night and automobiles (...
Published: 01/10/18
Updated: 01/12/18
‘The Post’ lacks urgency in favor of saintly typecasting for Streep and Hanks

‘The Post’ lacks urgency in favor of saintly typecasting for Streep and Hanks

Steven Spielberg’s The Post is a fake news movie, a true story told phony to further an agenda. Some viewers won’t notice since Spielberg’s agenda includes defending First Amendment rights, celebrating female empowerment and sticki...
Published: 01/08/18
Here’s what Oscar voters will be looking at after the Golden Globes

Here’s what Oscar voters will be looking at after the Golden Globes

A fashion blackout and stirring calls to end sexism made afterthoughts of Sunday night’s Golden Globe winners. Just when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s choices mean more than they have in years.Timing is everything during movie awards seas...
Published: 01/08/18
What’s in theaters this week: ‘The Commuter,’ ‘Proud Mary,’ ‘Paddington 2,’ ‘The Post’

What’s in theaters this week: ‘The Commuter,’ ‘Proud Mary,’ ‘Paddington 2,’ ‘The Post’

OPENING FRIDAY:THE COMMUTERLiam Neeson has a particular set of MTA tickets in The Commuter (PG-13), tickets he acquired over a very long career selling insurance in New York. Tickets making rush hour a nightmare for people like him. This seat is Take...
Published: 01/03/18
Updated: 01/10/18
10 new movies to look forward to in 2018

10 new movies to look forward to in 2018

OPENING FRIDAY: INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY Don’t worry, the first wide release of 2018 isn’t a sign of things to come. It’s the horror sequel Insidious: The Last Key (PG-13), Chapter 4 in the paranormal activity franchise that went d...
Updated one month ago
‘I, Tonya’ nails the landing on Tonya Harding’s rough and tumble story

‘I, Tonya’ nails the landing on Tonya Harding’s rough and tumble story

Tonya Harding was America’s sweathog in a sport preferring sweethearts, an Olympic skater always competing on thin ice.Craig Gillespie’s hysterically accurate biopic I, Tonya sets up the punchline she became. Harding’s spiteful rise and spectacular f...
Updated one month ago