Review by C.J. Bunce

(spoiler free)

Roger Ebert once said that he hesitated calling the movie Caligula the worst movie ever made, even though he believed it, because he thought that would drive certain types of viewers to actually see the movie.  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the worst movie ever made.  But it is a contender for the most boring.  Where The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was over-packed with too much of everything it tried to be, Tinker, Tailor suffers from offering the viewer too little.  Tinker, Tailor promises to be sophisticated.  It is not.  It is marketed as being absorbing.  It is very far from that.

Some stories suffer from the battle between showing and telling us, showing us too much without dialogue to allow us to understand what is going on, telling us too much by having characters explain background to other characters who would really already know everything that is being said.  There is neither showing nor telling in Tinker, Tailor.  There is just a lot of slow, agonizing slow movement, no linear structure, and no perceptible plot.  No way to sleuth out the riddle, no red herrings, no intrigue.  Nothing relevant, nothing big at stake any current audience will care about.  Men staring at other men and not talking for uncomfortable stretches of time.  All supposedly intended to demonstrate some sophisticated moviemaking.  In the end, no coherent point emerged.  Halfway through the film I wondered if the theater would return my money or whether the course of the movie would change, or whether I should just ride it out.  I did.  So many scenes of nothing happening make it hard to watch the screen–my mind wanted to wander off into anything else.

The cast of actors, of course, was top notch.  But they would have been better utilized with a better story.  And even if John le Carre’s novel is as boring as this film, you would think the director would have accepted the challenge to try to make some of the scenes exciting, or at least mildly interesting.  Tinker, Tailor is not even mildly interesting as stories go.  Key missing elements:  There is no plot development.  There is no character development.  There is no reason given to like any character.  There is no building of suspense.  There is no payoff at the end.  There is an excruciatingly long beginning that merges with an equally long middle and end.  There is a lot of seat fidgeting-wishing you hadn’t sat in a middle seat so you could more easily escape to get some caffeine to make it through the rest of the film, maybe loiter in the hallway.

This perhaps explains why it was only initially run in limited release, and why it is still only playing in a few theaters around the country.  Why message boards are full of viewers asking questions.  Fans of the great roster of actors in the film, including this reviewer, could hardly wait to see this movie.  Here it was one of our ten most highly anticipated films of 2012.  It could be that such expectation makes the resulting movie that much more disappointing, yet even with little anticipation the average viewer must be befuddled with what is displayed on-screen.

I had read early reviews out of L.A. and NYC, half of which referred to Tinker, Tailor as boring.  Why did I brush those off?  The cast of actors.  If a friend of yours recommends this movie to you, ask yourself some questions.  Is this person really a friend?  All that said, I am not angry about seeing this film.  It may very well be that the lesson of this film is that, despite all the excitement we see in spy movies like the James Bond films, real spy work is as boring as any other job.  But I don’t go to movies to see real life.  I want escapism.  And I truly wanted to see these actors acting.  Ultimately I like the humans behind the roles and want to see more of them.  It is just unfortunate they all landed in this film.  Look at the great actors in the film one by one:

Gary Oldman.  Folks who rave that Oldman should be nominated for an Oscar for this role are really crediting him with his past work and potential, not the work in this film.  Most of the film is Oldman staring at the viewer blankly as others speak to him.  Or, as happens far too much in this picture, he is “en route” to someplace or “biding time” between scenes where normally there would be some action.  This includes Oldman, with glasses on, wading in a pond.  More than once.  For no reason.  What is he thinking?  Who knows?  Or Oldman walking upstairs.  Or waiting outside.  Or sitting in a car.  Is it that hard for an actor to sit still?  Now compare that to his stunning performances as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, as the villain in The Fifth Element, as Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight, where, in each of these films, he was visibly passionate and demonstrated his acting range in riveting ways.  You would call nothing in Tinker, Tailor riveting.

Colin Firth.  Who doesn’t like Colin Firth?  He was Best Actor at last year’s Oscars.  All women love this guy.  He has a solid range of talent, whether in The King’s Speech, or Pride and Prejudice, or The English Patient, or Shakespeare in Love.  He is just wasted in this film on a character that gets little screen-time and when he does get screen-time it is all about his good looks.  Make no mistake, this is not another “Colin Firth movie.”

Ciaran Hinds.  Some of the best acting I have ever seen on film includes scenes featuring Ciaran Hinds, whether in Jane Eyre, Road to Perdition, The Sum of All Fears, Phantom of the Opera, or Munich–Hinds has incredible stage presence, and when he plays a character gravely it is palpable.  Like Firth, he is wasted here.  Worse yet, he pretty much vanishes at the end of the film with no resolution to his character’s story.

John Hurt.  At least Hurt gets to show what he can do, as a paranoid, hyper-intense spy leader.  But his scenes are pitched at us, often in unsuspecting flashbacks such as an earlier Christmas party that repeatedly underwhelms and is over-used, and his role, purpose, backstory and knowledge of the focus of the story is never made clear to the viewer.  For more than 40 years, back to The Man for All Seasons, to I, Claudius, to The Elephant Man, Alien, Skeleton Key, and V for Vendetta, he doesn’t miss a beat in his often bizarre roles.  Again, it is too bad the film can’t match his talent.

To be sure, the film does not suffer from the skills of any of its talented actors.

I can identify three saving graces for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which gives someone credit for trying, and rewards the casting director, composer, and the set designer for adding some realistic circa 1973 British style.

The soundtrack is quite good.  It is the soundtrack of an early 1970s suspense thriller.  Yet despite this, the movie never remotely matches the intensity of the ambitious musical score.  The composer Alberto Iglesias creates ambiance, and he, along with the production designer Maria Djurkovic, make you think you’re getting, and wish for, a suspenseful 1970s era film like All the President’s Men, or Three Days of the Condor.  In the opening scenes I kept looking across the screen, waiting for this to turn into a British version of our mob movies, like The Untouchables.  The look and feel is there, thanks to the composer and set designer.  But that story…  It’s like someone giving you a book with all the pages glued together.

The other saving grace is the young secondary cast members.  It is great to see them have the opportunity to develop their dramatic acting sea-legs working alongside such great older actors as Oldman, Firth, Hinds, and Hurt.  As a viewer, you wonder what they will be working on in their 40s:

Tom Hardy.  As the young clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Nemesis, Hardy got his first international attention.  Here, his passionate performance gives the audience something to hope for in the story.  It’s never fruitful, but Hardy is fun to watch, and his own hopelessness almost makes us want to care about the storyline.  The best surprise in the film was seeing that Tom Hardy can act.

Benedict Cumberbatch.  He plays a lackey for most of the film, Oldman’s sidekick, but gets a few chances to shine that he takes full advantage of.  Cumberbatch is not a typical looking lead actor but he is engaging, and in all of his roles he commands viewers’ attention.

Which leaves us with the best performance in the movie, that of Mark Strong (nee Marco Giuseppe Salussolia), who dazzled as the villain in the Robert Downey, Jr. movie Sherlock Holmes, and gave us the best part of the movie Green Lantern, playing Sinestro.  I point out Strong’s real name because he reminded me in the film very much of another good, and under-utilized, actor often seen in Italian roles, Andy Garcia (The Untouchables, The Godfather, Part III, Dead Again, Ocean’s Eleven) (who actually is not Italian but from Cuba).  Strong’s performance is nuanced, and we actually get to see his character go through a range of circumstances.  Of course, like the rest of the film, they take us on a slow ride to nowhere.  Still, if Tinker, Tailor leaves us with anything, we have the promise of great future careers for Strong, Cumberbatch, and Hardy.

Despite what you see in movie marketing, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy lacks anything riveting, lacks suspense, lacks basic elements of story like plot.  It lacks all the excitement that makes a typical spy movie enjoyable.  It feigns sophistication, but unlike something like the TV series Mad Men, it is only a pretender.  Unfortunately it is not worth your 127 minutes or $5-10 for any other feature of the film, such as performances by the top-level cast, and if you must see it, you might wait until the video release–and you can thank me later for waiting until you can use the fast forward on your remote to get through all the scenes where nothing happens.  If you go, don’t be surprised if you walk out and join countless commenters on message boards asking “what just happened?”  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is in theaters in general release beginning this weekend. 1 of 5 stars.

BTW, the movie’s official website must be open to criticism, which is commendable.  Here this very review was re-posted on their web page:

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