By Matt Neufeld

December 16, 2011

There certainly has not been a lack of quality spy films in recent years: “Killer Elite,” from just a couple of weeks ago, this year, 2011, “Breach” (2007), “Munich” (2005), “The Bourne Identify” (2002), “Die Another Day” (2002), and “Spy Game” (2001).

It’s too bad that the producers and director of the vastly muddled, confusing, dry, slow and disappointing “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” didn’t bother to take notice, and take filmic notes, of the qualities that made these entertaining and fun films work so well.

“Tinker” had all of the promising qualities set to go on paper—a great mystery spy story from an acclaimed spy novel, an interesting protagonist, a bevy of interesting supporting characters, and a great cast of talented actors to play these parts—but somehow the entire project collapsed into itself, became too self-aware, and simply lost itself in the very world that the filmmakers created: The resulting film is too slowly-paced, too difficult to follow, too dry, too boring, and just plain difficult to sit through at times. The film and story are so self-involved, so wrapped inside its multiple layers, and so lost in its own tiers and webs and avenues of deception, twists, turns and mysteries, someone forget to remember to address some basic aspects of writing, directing, pacing, timing and story clarity to make things clear, easy to understand, and easily communicated to the audience. Instead, you’re left with a hazy, shady, foggy mess that is so baffling, “Tinker” unfortunately becomes one of those irritating films in which you literally squirm around in your seat, annoyed at what’s happening, and, this is terrible to say, waiting for the end to come quickly.

At a recent advance screening, I hadn’t seen that much squirming in the seats since the latest third or fourth installment of the latest lame animated children’s film franchise. You could sense the lack of excitement in the air, and that’s not good.

If it’s any consolation, the problems with “Tinker” are intellectual ones—there’s so much story, so much back story, so much background to the main story, and so many layers of espionage, it just seems as if the filmmakers were unable to present the entire story structure coherently. That’s not an excuse for presenting a disappointingly average film, but it’s just a possible explanation for the filmmakers’ failure to present a coherent, understandable—and enjoyable—story. The filmmakers should have dissected and cut down—without dumbing down–the elaborate and complex story, which came from the original source book by the same name, which was first released in 1974, and the ensuing television mini-series by the same name, which was released in 1979. The original book was written by John le Carre, who is involved with the current film as a producer, writer and even actor, appearing in a small cameo as a Christmas party guest.

The filmmakers—director Tomas Alfredson, screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, and, as is irritatingly and ridiculously too common these days, about eight too many producers (there are 10 listed in one set of credits, if you can believe that)—seemed to desperately want to include what le Carre originally presented, but, again, they also wanted to include too much. It’s to le Carre’s credit that he presented such an interesting, in-depth, wildly intelligent and exceptionally complex espionage story, but when you make a film from such in-depth material, you have to constantly remember that you are indeed making a film, and not just transferring a complex novel to film. Of course, the filmmakers know this—but they did not succeed in doing so. You have to make a complex novel clear and understandable and filmic, and while that is not an easy task, it has to be done in a filmic manner first and foremost for the film version to be enjoyable.

On some very basic levels, the main problems with the “Tinker” film are often simply pacing, timing and editing. Some scenes unravel with such slow camera movement, slow body movement, and even slow speech, it’s near-funereal. The timing of speech is slow, the action is sporadic, and the camera tracks people and places at a too-leisurely pace too often. The storytelling is confusing because segues, cuts and movement from scene to scene aren’t always clear and chronological. That’s fine, of course, but when it’s done so often and without proper explanation or clear reason, again, it just becomes a confusing film. Yes, spy films should be confusing, complex and mysterious—of course—but at the same time, the audience has to have a basic, clear comprehension of the story’s confusion, complexity and mystery. The audience has to be in on the fun, inside the story, while at the same time being just enough outside of the story so there can be surprises, delights and payoffs. In “Tinker,” sorry to say, the audience is so outside of the what is going on, you feel more like an outside spectator intruding on someone’s else’s proceedings. It’s as if what you’re watching is so remote and far away, your interest starts at a low level, and never increases.

What saves “Tinker” from drifting just below average is the array of quality actors populating the film.

Gary Oldman delivers a steady, controlled performance as protagonist George Smiley, a retired, middle-aged British intelligence official who is called back to duty to smoke out a “mole,” or spy, within the British ranks, hiding in plain sight, as they say. Smiley has to conduct clean-up after an operation in Hungary fails, and he is asked to figure out who the mole is, how the mole is operating, and what, if anything, the existence of the mole has to do with the Hungary operation. Oldman, in a recent interview with The Washington Post, said he was not apprehensive about taking on a role previously played exceptionally well by the great Alec Guinness in the mini-series. Oldman made a great point to the Post—he said that there has been a host of actors through the decades who have played other notable characters, several times over, so he was simply providing another take on the Smiley character. Simple point, but it’s true—why can’t another actor play Smiley? And Oldman was a great choice—he is one of those talented actors that disappears into his character so you forget that it’s Gary Oldman. And he does that with Smiley, who is not a James Bond, not a Jason Bourne, not a Jack Ryan, and not some other generic action figure delivering punches and kicks and driving cars off buildings. Smiley is a very deliberate, procedural, thoughtful spy who does his work in the real trenches of intelligence—insular offices, hidden back rooms, safe houses, dusty offices, small apartments, quiet meeting places. And, as Oldman told the Post, he had to give an uncharismatic character just enough charisma to make him interesting—and filmic—and Oldman accomplishes this. It’s always interesting to watch Oldman, and it’s interesting to watch him in “Tinker.”

The same observation can be said for the equally-talented Colin Firth and John Hurt. Hurt plays “Control,” an intelligence leader who strongly believes in the existence of the aforementioned mole. Firth plays Bill Haydon, one of several members of a shady cadre of intelligence suits who conduct their work in sound-proof rooms, worrying daily about who they can trust, who they cannot trust, who they can believe, and who they can’t believe. Scattered among a landscape of shady souls are various agents, double agents, informers and intelligence operatives who either could provide accurate information about the mole—or couldn’t provide anything worthwhile. One of the fun aspects of “Tinker’s” original story is that, seemingly, no one can be trusted—and that, of course, is always one of the best aspects of quality espionage stories. When a story advances with increasing questions about who is loyal and who is not loyal, the suspense increases, the tension builds, and the mystery deepens. All of that occurs in “Tinker,” but, again, it’s not paced or timed well enough to keep the interest level high.

Director Anderson seemed to want to present a moody, atmospheric film shrouded in haze, fog and depressing grays and blacks, which symbolize the haziness, fogginess and depressing aspects of the Cold War era depicted in “Tinker.” But at times, this depressing aura draws the film down, and there is so little comedic or enjoyable relief from the brooding and fighting and infighting, the story tends to drag you down into its sad world, and it’s not a fun, glamorous or exciting world. It’s full of death and fights and deception and violence, and none of it is too enjoyable. That’s probably how much of the real-life espionage world actually is, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an entertaining two hours at the movies.

There remains many possible intriguing Cold War-era spy stories out there to be made, and an entire generation who grew up during this time—tens of millions of baby boomers—are assuredly hoping to see more interesting film versions of these stories. But in the future, let’s pick up the pacing and timing a bit, and let’s remember to include just a bit of humor and positivity here and there. After all, the Cold War did end, communism to a large degree is dead, and democracy did win out in the end, so there is cause for some optimism, and for some celebration.

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (127 min minutes, at area theaters) Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language.

Matt Neufeld is a longtime journalist, actor and film critic in the Washington and Baltimore areas. He has participated in many local film events and projects in the region, and he has appeared as an actor, supporting actor and extra in more than 45 films projects, at all levels, during the past 20 years. He was previously a daily local news reporter and features writer for The Washington Times and The Frederick News-Post, and he was the media relations publicist for The Washington Performing Arts Society. Matt is currently the News Editor for Carroll Publishing in Bethesda.