It would have been incredibly easy for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to fail.
The very fact that someone would want to adapt a seminal John Le Carré novel as densely complex as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a two hour movie is enough to inspire skepticism. All the more so, considering a widely popular and critically heralded 1979 BBC mini-series adaptation starring Alec Guinness set the precedent that you need five hours to truly do the novel justice. The fact that the mini-series is good, naturally also inspires remake resentment over someone redoing a story that has already been done perfectly – with greater time restrictions no less. Especially when one of those “someones” is Tomas Alfredson, an incredibly talented Swedish director nonetheless taking on a very British spy story. and whose last project was a vampire movie (albeit, an excellent moody, complex, genre-elevating one).
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy far from fails. It is one of the best movies to be released in 2011. It may even be a contender for one of the best spy movies to come along in a long time – if not of all time.
These filmmakers get this story. They understand it. And while purists will naturally hold up the superiority of Guinness version for its nuances and more fleshed out story, Alfredson and his collaborators have unmistakably – and somewhat miraculously – succeeded in capturing the essence of Le Carré’s story in a two hour span. What’s more, they do it thrillingly.
Some might find the film’s pace challenging, but here’s a case where saying a film is deliberately paced isn’t code for “slow and boring.” Its pace is a marvel, as there’s a fabulous momentum that continually builds till you’re barreling towards its finale. It’s not just the pace, but the suspense the movie achieves, using silence, mood and spartan filmmaking to create unbearable tension. Alfredson seems to know less can be more, and it’s the signs of an incredibly talented filmmaker who not only knows that, but can pull it off to the degree Alfredson does here. He smartly realizes this story has endured so long for a reason, and need only a little help from him (even if you might need a bit of help and rewinding to understand the labyrinthine plot).
What’s more, where as it would have been easy to straight-up adapt only the narrative in its bare bones form, Tinker Tailor has greater ambitions than simply telling a story. In that sense the film does the original source material the greatest honor: it captures its purpose.
What Le Carré has always done so well – and what Tinker Tailor does too – is strip down popular culture’s inflation of spies as invulnerable demigods who are only human beings when a plot requires them to be between action/exposition sequences. The spies in his worlds are human beings – deeply and inherently flawed. They are petty, weak, broken, self-serving, deceitful, egotistical, and prone to failure and mistakes. Equally destructive is the organization they work for, clogged with personal politics and ambitions, and the job itself. Arguably more than the BBC version, this Tinker Tailor stresses how much this job demands of its members, and how badly it can exploit and then break them.
It’s in that area that Alfredson has found his justification for this version of Le Carré’s work and reasserted its importance for an entirely new era. The Cold War may have ended long ago, but there is still much to be drawn from it. As a result, Alfredson not only does justice to a thrilling story, but by probing deeper delivers a spy movie that matters.
It also be unfortunate to not mention how technically accomplished Tinker Tailor is. Generally talking about a movie's technical accomplishments is about as exciting as hearing about every scientific molecular detail about an Indian summer. But any movie buff knows how rare and remarkable it is to come across a movie like this that excels on every level of production, whether it be the performances (in particular, Gary Oldman), the direction, the cinematography, the sound design, the editing, or the uncanny recreation of 1970s England. I know I've already called this one of the best movies of 2011, but in my mind it is the best technical achievement in movies in 2011.
About the Blu-Ray Disc: There’s a solid transfer here, perfectly accentuating and sharpening the Cold War bleary look (and theme) of the film to make it resonate and immerse you that extra bit more in high definition. The features are good, with the Interviews with Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and director and writer proving some good insights in their brief duration. The real highlight of the disc, however, is the thirty minute interview with author John Le Carre – a must watch.