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MOVIE REVIEW
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011)

Tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-gary-oldman-david-denick
Jack English/Studiocanal

Some movies generate high expectations — often through overblown marketing, sometimes by virtue of the elements that have come together to create the two hours of entertainment you have coughed up your hard-earned dollars to see. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" has ingredients that would leave even the most jaded of cinemagoers salivating: a director (Tomas Alfredson) who has already proved himself the master of understatement and the purveyor of claustrophobia-inducing tension with "Let the Right One In"; a glittering cast of British talent — Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch et al — gathered in such numbers that you would be forgiven for thinking you were at an awards ceremony already; source material of almost legendary status written by one of the greatest thriller authors of our times.

Naturally, expectations are raised. But can we necessarily look forward to a tightly coiled thriller like "The Ipcress File," with sharp, incisive dialogue like "All the President's Men," that is tinged with layers of political intrigue like "State of Play"? Well, sadly not. Without having read the John le Carré novel or seen the famous 1979 TV miniseries starring the late Alec Guinness, the uninitiated comes to the party with no knowledge of the plot, no backstory and ultimately no understanding of what is happening on screen.

The basic plot is simple enough to follow: There is a Russian spy at the heart of British intelligence. Armed only with the knowledge that he is one of five men including himself, George Smiley (Mr. Oldman) is tasked with rooting the spy out. He quickly eliminates himself from the investigation and goes about setting a trap to catch the Russian mouse.

The bleak early-'70s setting is beautifully captured without resorting to clumsy visual or audio cues. And the acting is first rate — you would expect no less with this cast. The machinations of the cold-war-intelligence machine are cleverly revealed and totally believable. You can almost smell the ink ribbon on the telex printer.

The problem is the adaptation of the source material. Every TV or book franchise that makes it to the big screen owes a debt to its loyal audience. Every director likes to give a knowing wink to the audience members who read all the novels and appendices or sat through seven seasons of complex drama. Between them, however, Mr. Alfredson and screenwriters Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor appear to have spent most of the film with one eye closed, winking so firmly that you would need a postgraduate qualification in le Carré to follow all the subtle subplots, barely explained relationships and long-knowing looks between characters.

By the end of two hours, one has no idea why certain characters have done certain things and is left with an overwhelming sense of having not been let in on a really funny joke. There are sharply edited scenes and flashbacks in the first 45 minutes that this critic still cannot fathom. The film is also incredibly slow, with the one and only action sequence involving getting a briefcase out of a cloakroom. This gentle pace should serve the film — it certainly allows Mr. Oldman room to breath as the laborious and melancholy Smiley — but it only seems to confuse things still further in terms of the story. Now not only am I baffled, but I am starting to fidget.

Judging by the spontaneous applause at the closing credits, one could only conclude that this is a movie for the die-hard fan. If you have read le Carré and revel in the book's detail and depth, then you will appreciate far more of the subtlety of Mr. Alfredson's vision than this critic. If you are looking for something to stimulate your little gray cells, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" will certainly challenge them — but you might want to read the book first.

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY

Opens on Sept. 16 in the United Kingdom and on Dec. 9 in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson; written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré; director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema; edited by Dino Jonsater; music by Alberto Iglesias; production design by Maria Djurkovic; costumes by Jacqueline Durran; produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Robyn Slovo; released by Studiocanal (United Kingdom) and Focus Features (United States). Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Gary Oldman (George Smiley), Kathy Burke (Connie Sachs), Benedict Cumberbatch (Peter Guillam), David Dencik (Toby Esterhase), Colin Firth (Bill Haydon), Stephen Graham (Jerry Westerby), Tom Hardy (Ricki Tarr), Ciaran Hinds (Roy Bland), John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Percy Alleline), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Irina), Simon McBurney (Oliver Lacon), Katrina Vasilieva (Ann Smiley), William Haddock (Bill Roach), Mark Strong (Jim Prideaux) and John le Carré (Christmas party guest).

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