Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson is nothing if not ambitious. Following the success of 2008’s Let The Right One In (one of the finest films of the past decade), the director turned his attention to John le Carré’s beloved novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, previously adapted into a highly regarded BBC mini-series in 1979, for his English language debut. All of the pieces seemed to fit: a supremely gifted emerging director, the huge potential in the source material, and a cast assembled from the top tier of British acting talent. Surely Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy couldn’t miss, right? Not quite.
The film follows the story of retired intelligence agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman), tasked with discovering the identity of a traitor in the upper echelons of the British secret service during the Cold War. Told largely through conversations which serve as launchpads for a number of flashbacks, Tinker Tailor is, from a technical standpoint, flawlessly crafted, and Alfredson’s meticulous attention to detail rewards viewers who can keep up with the level of concentration the film demands. Oldman gives a stunning performance as Smiley, one which will rank highly alongside his absolute best, not least of all for the level of restraint he displays. Where many of his best characters in movies past required some level of mania or unhinged-ness, with Smiley he is so still and expressionless that it’s something of a revelation. Smiley is an observer, and Alfredson cleverly devotes much screen time to close-ups of Oldman’s face and eyes, framed beautifully with his enormous bifocals (which also serve a more important, audience orientation purpose in the flashbacks). He conveys so much by doing so little, and while the supporting cast are all excellent, it’s unquestionably Oldman’s film.
So Tinker Tailor certainly has a lot going for it, and the look and atmosphere of the film are something to be admired to be sure. So why was it that I walked out of the cinema so confused and frustrated? Clearly, setting tone is something that is important to Alfredson, and the moodiness and creeping sense of dread in Let The Right One In is one of that film’s greatest strengths. With this film however, Alfredson devotes so much to generating an appropriate mood that, in hindsight, he possibly shoots himself in the foot from a narrative standpoint. Tinker Tailor takes its time to build a wonderful tone, yet the story progression is all but impenetrable. Perhaps reading the novel or seeing the BBC series would make the film more accessible, but for those of us who haven’t experienced either it can be incredibly difficult to fathom exactly what is happening for the bulk of the running time. Added to this, Alfredson refuses to use technique to assist the viewer, with the exception of the aforementioned glasses gag. Tinker Tailor demands so much from its audience that many people may find themselves, like I did, frustrated at not being able to closely follow the plot. Films that challenge you to keep up without holding your hand are all too rare, but maintaining such a level of concentration over 127 minutes is not easy for even the most perceptive filmgoer, and while it’s encouraging that Alfredson assumes a level of intelligence in his audience, he may have pushed it a little too far with Tinker Tailor. But then again, perhaps I’m just not as clever as I’d like to think.