17 January 2012

Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

You thought this site was just for ridiculously late, lazy, loquacious video game reviews? Well, guess what: turns out I can also bitch about movies months after their release!

Trailers are like scam artists. Everyone knows full well you shouldn't trust them, and yet this one just seems so trustworthy, and then you fall for it anyway. I had been waiting for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ever since I saw the trailer back in last summer, because the trailer is a work of art.

I mean, look at that fucking trailer. That's fucking beautiful! You almost seriously consider whether you'd pay a full movie ticket just for the trailer. I mean, my god. That music. That dialogue. That delivery.

But, after seeing the actual movie, I was very surprised at the utter disconnect between it and the trailer. In fact, I think I can cover a lot of the problems with the movie by tracing the divergences from the trailer- this will probably end up being as much a review of the trailer as the film.

As I've already said elsewhere, I don't believe in avoiding spoilers, but a significant part of Tinker Tailor's allure is the mystery plot, so I'll make an exception for it. Most of the things I want to discuss don't involve big plot points anyhow.

So let's start. One of the first few things you notice is how beautiful the music is, and how brilliantly it works with what's going on in the scene. The way those fucking violins underscore the tension, it's amazing, right? Well, there's not much of that in the film. Sure, it's still got plenty of parts that should be tense, and they are not wanting for tension- in fact I was literally on the edge of my seat, and holding my breath all the way through. It's hardly the mind-blowing experience the trailer promises, but if you don't think too hard and let yourself be taken in by the abstruse exposition, you can get a fun, tense experience watching it. I mean, the film is good. It's just not great, and nothing like the trailer, nor is there such skillful interplay of music and pace.

To use a fog-of-war metaphor...
Shortly after, in the trailer, there's that oh-so-alluring promise of pithy, succinct exposition dialogue, landing with the momentum of a sledgehammer, all crammed into a handful of short words. There's a mole. Right at the top of the circle. He's been there for years. Short. Quick. To the point. Within moments, it's perfectly clear what's going on- to you, to the characters. This part effectively projects the idea that the characters are shrewd men, who are able to analyze complicated crises at a moment's notice. This is not the case in the movie. Nobody, including you, ever has any idea what's going on. Everything and everyone is always confused. When the movie is over, you still struggle to piece together the various plot points to figure out what actually happened.

Now, loath as I am to berate a book movie for being too faithful to the book, some of Tinker Tailor's problems do appear to stem from the adaptation being so close. It's really not the same to receive a given quantity of information by reading a few pages about it and to do so by seeing a few scenes in a film with a combined length of several seconds. This isn't really bad per se. In the worst case you can simply familiarize yourself with what happens in the book and the issue evaporates. Unfortunately, however, it is clear that if exposition and pacing was handled the same way as they were in the trailer, the film would have been so much better, and they weren't, and that's somewhat irritating in a "what might have been" sense.

Just to elaborate even more: This "right at the top of the Circus" line (it's "Circus", the codename of the intelligence directorate) appears quite a while into the movie. That's not Simon McBurney briefing Oldman- he's actually paraphrasing someone else, and the impact is far smaller. It's also a superfluous bit- by then you have already learned much of what this line would tell you from other scenes.

Anyway, moving on. We see Gary Oldman again. He is also a shrewd man. He listens to the facts with an aura of easy confidence- it is obvious he will approach the task methodically, break it down into pieces and take simple, but amazingly brilliant steps to unerringly approach the resolution. How do you find an enemy? You call an old friend, and ask him to do something for you. But what? Surely some secret contingency plan only Oldman and Cumberbatch are privy to, indicated by the camera looking at them from a distance, with obscuring scenery in the foreground. Oldman gives some parting advice- he has to assume they're watching. What is this secret, dangerous thing they are planning? Oh my god, how exciting!

Well, in the film, Oldman and Cumberbatch do indeed work together, in secret. But Oldman asks for a favor as part of a long planning session at his house. With you, the audience, already "participating" in the meeting, it is irritating to feel as if you should know what they are talking about, but not having a clue. Anyway, the something Cumberbatch needs to do isn't that exciting, and you find out what it is soon enough, and then you watch him do it, and it's all ever so slightly modest in the way of suspense.

Oh, and that part about them watching? That's a third unrelated scene, where Oldman tells Cumberbatch to cover up their tracks.

The point I'm trying to make here is, the trailer has one perfectly made scene. All the movie has to do is continue from there. Instead, they've gone and broken it down into two (well, three, the street meeting in the trailer is yet another unrelated scene) different scenes with nowhere near the impact. I mean, of course it isn't exactly like that- I'm sure they didn't wait until the trailer was done to start making the movie! But the trailer clearly demonstrates that the film has all the elements needed to produce some brilliant sequences. Why were they absent from the actual film itself?

Moving on, Oldman's (and our) unwavering confidence in his competence, takes a sudden blow. David Dencik informs him that things aren't always what they seem in a casual meeting at some airstrip- perhaps he is about to set off on his way elsewhere, leaving Oldman bereft of his just recently revealed capacity for assisting him in this matter.

This is one of the worst offenders. In the movie, Oldman has kidnapped and forcibly brought Dencik there for interrogation. Seconds later he is about to fall apart and desperately beg for his life. He thinks the plane is transporting his executioner. The movie version is still a good scene and the acting is enjoyable, but it's nothing like the trailer one.

Moscow planted the mole, Oldman discovers to his shock. Nevertheless, he is drawing closer to his target: He is one of five men. Actually, it's three, and for some half of the movie, two men. One of those five is Oldman, the investigator, himself, but nothing much is made of this little quirk. Another one is Ciaran Hinds, who is not suspicious, gets eliminated from the list very early, and is given little attention therafter. A third suspect is revealed to be innocent halfway through. Anyway, meanwhile, time is running out, as every minute Oldman spends gives the mole opportunity to cause further damage: He killed their man in Istanbul!

Well, for one, the thing about Moscow planting the mole, and the five suspects, are things established outright from the very beginning. There is no clear sense of Oldman's character gradually narrowing down the possibilities- he just stops caring about certain people and you have no choice but to assume he has decided they are no longer suspect. And the killing in Istanbul, that has barely anything to do with the mole. They're talking about some other character who is assumed to have defected but who hasn't, and thus has to be proven innocent.

The image of Mark Strong firing a rifle seems to indicate some pivotal confrontation near the end of the movie, but in fact there is no such confrontation anywhere in the movie except the brief firefight in the beginning that gets the story going. I'm okay with there being no confrontation, but it's still an example of the trailer being blatantly dishonest and misleading and that I'm not okay with.

The line about everything becoming so ugly would have worked perfectly if used to underscore the mess of a problem that Oldman has to deal with, as the trailer suggests. It's used in an entirely different capacity, and yet again, has nowhere near the impact. Oldman's apparent verbal duel with his nemesis is actually a part of his drunken, rambling monologue in the beginning of the film, and all it accomplishes is some clumsy backstory exposition. Well, to be sure, he's reminiscing about how he met who later turned out to be Karla, the enemy commander. But Karla never shows up, and the movie is about Oldman vs. the Mole, so yeah.


Really, the trailer appears to show some very unforgettable moments from the film, and a very well put-together experience. The elements are still there in the film, and they are very well crafted elements individually, but the way they are jammed together a bit awkwardly. All the great lines and acting you think you see in the trailer is squandered on unimportant things, and the important points of the movie are nowhere near as well done as the trailer hints at.

Yeah, yeah. I know. A trailer, misleading? Well I never, stop the presses! But with Tinker Tailor, it's extraordinary how much the divergence from the trailer defines the inadequacies of the film.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still a decent movie, though. It's not a great movie like the trailer implies, it's not really insightful or poignant. It's almost like a whodunit, except it's about spies and not murder. It's very enjoyable to watch - the cast did do a great job, the art direction is great, the whole movie is beautiful. Just make sure to completely forget everything you saw in the trailer, and don't expect something extraordinary.

Score: 5/5


  1. It's funny, I've seen other lukewarm and even negative reviews of the film by those who loved the trailer. I wasn't a huge fan of the trailer (too sexy and with too many cliche lines), and I loved the movie. I read and enjoyed the book several years ago. While that didn't help me understand the film any better, I was prepared to not understand half of what was going on, and for the little details.

    Even though it's so common, trailers that convey a different feel from the film still bother me. I felt that with Of Gods and Men, which had a very dramatic trailer, and the film was very emotional but entirely undramatic.

    Anyway, though I disagree on the film (no film is loved or hated by all, of course), I still agree on how misleading the trailer was. I also admit I don't know exactly how I'd react to the film if I hadn't read the book and known that the whole movie would have hidden depths.

  2. Now that I think of it, I agree that the trailer was a slightly over the top. "Too sexy" is a good way to put it. I guess for me the trailer came at a time when the movies that were showing were depressing, and the movies that were announced were depressing (Battleship! Rock'em sock'em robots! Oh wait those are already in... Goddammit!), nor did any make narrative or cinematographic sense, so I latched on to the one trailer that did promise sanity.

    It's really doubly silly of me to have trusted the trailer, also, since another (very different) trailer was making the rounds around then that I didn't like. I guess I decided that the one I liked reflected the movie better, because I wanted that to be true.

    I did actually like it a lot, despite my endless complaining. I even intend to re-watch it one of these days, having sneakily read up on the book and thus armed myself with crucial plot details. There was a lot that was great in ways the trailer doesn't hint at. But still, when it was over, my reaction was a "Oh. Well that's nice." rather than the stunned wow that Drive had elicited.

    So this is weird, but, have you watched Boss? What did you think of the dialogue?

  3. It's easy to choose trailers that you like or don't like. If I don't want to like a movie, I pick out the annoying parts in a trailer. If I want to like it, I focus on the good. I told friends who might enjoy Tinker Tailor they would either think, "OK, that was well done" or "Wow - that was excellent, a unique work," haha. I can see either side.

    What is Boss?

  4. Well, it took me a while, but: This.