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‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ … Clunker

Posted on Dec 9, 2011

Bo-ring: Gary Oldman looks pensive in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”

By Richard Schickel

There’s a mole in the soup. Or, more properly, “The Circus,” as John le Carré has always been pleased to call the British secret service. Evidence for this is an operation that goes terribly wrong in Hungary. George Smiley (Gary Oldman), a retired spy, is recruited by “Control” (John Hurt) to return to active duty and ferret him out, which, after nearly two and a half hours, he succeeds in doing.

This, in substance, is what “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is about. Oldman’s role is sort of a reprise of Alec Guinness’ Smiley in the 1979 miniseries, but it is not, I think, an improvement on it. Under Tomas Alfredson’s leaden direction, the film, which is set in the 1970s when the Cold War was at its height, consists mainly of guys enigmatically sipping whiskey, smoking cigarettes and exchanging meaningful stares. Aside from that contretemps in Hungary, the film has no action sequences to speak of. Smiley is torching for his wife, who is a bit of a layabout, but he does so in a fashion that’s more wistful than energetic. Le Carré’s conceit, here as elsewhere in his work, is that espionage is a gray and largely bureaucratic world where “each man fixed his eyes before his feet” as they flowed mindlessly up “King William Street,” to quote T.S. Eliot.

And so forth. And so on. Back in the day, this sort of thing worked a treat. People were—justifiably—tired of more muscular spy stories, And le Carré, it was known, had done some time in the secret world. But what was a novelty some 35 years ago has become standard operating procedure in what we might term the non-thrilling thriller world. Nowadays, or so it seems to me, a few karate chops would not go amiss at the upper levels of fictional spydom. What has happened instead is that le Carré’s work, in particular, has grown infinitely longer and duller than the lean quickness of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” has given way to paper-shuffling and, in the movies, actors talking without moving their lips appreciably.

I am at a loss, therefore, to explain why “Tinker Tailor … ” has been greeted as sort of a second coming in its early reviews. Maybe that’s it: It is sort of a second coming, a return to the dullness and dutifulness that seemed such a novelty in days of yore. That’s all right, I suppose. I’ll concede that we haven’t lately seen many movies of this type. But I also think that the spy story has grown grand beyond its station. Writers like le Carré aspire to some sort of literary status. They want to chop off the demeaning “mystery” or “spy” limitation from their brief bios, and be taken seriously as just plain “novelists.” And there are, from time to time, moviemakers like Alfredson who are pleased to indulge their ambition.

To that end, they round up a raft of pretty good English character actors—most of whom are not exactly household names—“Oh, look, there’s whatshisname”—and set them into “thoughtful” (i.e. chin-stroking) activity. This, of course, leads impressionable reviewers—especially desperate at this time of the year, when one after the other of the promising movies crashes and burns—to review the film’s ambitions rather than its accomplishments. It is also possible that one could, out of carelessness or the press of other business (Christmas shopping for instance, or Christmas drinking), slip and drop the secret of who the spy of the film’s title actually is. I am pleased to say that in this case that temptation did not arise for me. Solemnity is so rarely an adequate substitute for wit and pace in movies that are, let’s face it, genre pieces at heart.

By the time “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” ground to an end, I was so disaffected from it—eyelids drooping and all that—that I couldn’t tell you who the rotten apple was. And didn’t give, shall we say, a tinker’s damn about that failure. Andy Warhol once admitted that he rather liked long boring things. So do I occasionally. But this movie proves a sterling test case for that premise. 

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Samson's avatar

By Samson, December 13, 2011 at 11:40 am Link to this comment

I guess in an era when a thoughtful Sherlock Holmes
becomes a ‘thrill-ride’ action hero, and the
intensely plot-twisting Mission Impossible brand is
somehow morphed into Tom Cruise the Action hero, its
not really a surprise to see some idiot movie critic
complaining the Mr. LeCarre’s deep, thoughtful and
realistic spy novels haven’t been rewritten into some
super-James-Bondy action thriller movie. 

That was always the genius of LeCarre.  He never was
a writer of ‘action-sequenced’ spy trash. Instead, he
put realistic an ordinary people into a profession
where no-one can ever know who to trust and that
consists of long periods of boredom (great for
breeding thoughts of mistrust) interrupted by brief
moments of life-threatening terror.  If he wants
James Bond, he should go to the video store.  I think
he wandered into the wrong theater.

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By Macaresarf1, December 12, 2011 at 9:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mr. Schickel, like any ancient film critic, should probably be taken for a walk by the Thames.  John le Carre could might arrange that.

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By georgeeparker, December 12, 2011 at 7:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Pity you weren’t paying attention to what was going
on… George Smiley was not recruited by “Control” to
return to active duty and ferret out the mole. Control
had died months before. Smiley was recruited by
government minister, Lacon. And that was in the first
twenty minutes.

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By Richard Raznikov, December 12, 2011 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Skip the remake and see the original.  Available from netflix and probably your
local library.  The original, the BBC film, is brilliant. 

I was sorry to see that, apparently bereft of ideas, filmdom has again decided to
remake an original for no reason other than maybe making a few bucks off people
who didn’t catch the original. 

I’ve seen the Guiness film maybe a dozen times over the years.  It’s a masterpiece. 
When will the film industry stop wasting our time with this craziness?

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By falken751, December 12, 2011 at 7:52 am Link to this comment

“The Spy who came in from the cold” was one of the best
book I have read and the movie with Richard Burton was
really good too. But I have to admit, Tinker was one of the
worst books I tried to read and most of the books by LaCarre’
that I have tried to read were put down very soon after I
started reading them. I do not know how someone with the
skill to write the “Spy” could write so many stinkers.

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By Damien Walder, December 12, 2011 at 12:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I often wonder that so many film reviewers don’t like film, but rather show a bias toward the spectacle.I can just imagine how annoyed Schickel must have been with “The Debt” or “The Lives of Others”. The Cold War shaped this world, not with outright violence, but with tension and murmured threats. A film on the LeCarré world of spies - and please note he stays closer to the facts than did Ian Fleming, despite their careers in intelligence - such a film may require more patience than someone who suffers ADD (without karate chops) can muster.
Le Carré could have elaborated beyond recognition the tales that he was very close to - such as The Philby Case - but instead he focused on the tiny things that add up, like a good mystery writer. I was very pleased to find Alfredson, a director who knows tension, given this project. Please note that having two films you have directed redone* by Americans means not that they weren’t good but that the studios don’t trust movie audiences to pay attention to either subtitles or subtleties. That said, I applaud that he was given the chance to show off his craft with such fine English-language actors.
Someone, please give Schickel those complimentary passes for Sherlock Holmes 2, I understand there is much chopping, shooting and exploding to be had. Warning: also features actress Alfredson has worked with.

*Let The Right One In, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

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Queenie's avatar

By Queenie, December 11, 2011 at 6:50 pm Link to this comment

I have the original “Tinker….” on DVD and it is far from boring. I did not read the book but I have read other books by LeCarre and never found a clunker in the lot. I read “The Constant Gardener” before I saw the film and, of course, the book was better. Books usually are, but then it is casting that makes a movie. Forget direction.
There is no other actor alive or dead who could walk in the shoes of Alec Guinness. This, to my recollection, is the second bomb of an Alec Guinness movie. Can you spell Tom Hanks? “The Ladykillers?” No? Well, I just feel sorry for any actor who would dare to take on the role once played by Guinness. Can’t be done.
Gary Oldman? Come ON.

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By Maani, December 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm Link to this comment


Not to worry.  I had the same reaction.  Sadly, Schickel has become increasingly curmudgeonly and negative in his viewpoints.  I’ve read LeCarre (though I haven’t seen the movie yet), and I can tell you that Schickel is just being Schickel.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a “reviewer” and a “critic” - many of the latter of which exhibit the definition of that word way too literally.


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By kobe8, December 10, 2011 at 3:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes. I agree completely. As my son said, “They made a boring movie about the Cold War that was a really boring war.”

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By gerard, December 10, 2011 at 3:00 pm Link to this comment

It seems silly to comment on a film you haven’t seen about a book you haven’t read, but my feelings of fairness are calling out for a response anyhow.

First, this is a review of a film.  But it turns out to be mostly a criticism of LeCarre.  How come? Exactly what are the faults, and whose faults are they—film director or writer—or adaptors that came in between?

My limited experience with the stories of LeCarre tells me that his writing is more subtle than most spy stories, and it is this subtlety that bends them in the direction of “literature.” Subtlety does not translate easily into pictorial art, and this may be the cause of problems. But LeCarre ought not be made to suffer, if this is indeed the case.

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By Donald Henshaw, December 10, 2011 at 1:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Can it be, am I reading this right? A film reviewer calling for the powers that be who make films, be it Hollywood or otherwise, to dumb them down to the point where even the near brain dead enthusiasts of movies like “Transformers” can enjoy a spy story? Do they not already have James Bond, Spy Kids and, to a greater extent, Jason Bourne, to keep them occupied? Do they really need to take the intellectual and grown up/mature/interesting/out of every movie that hits the screens in order to satisfy the puerile tastes of the great unwashed? Not that Hollywood makes anything remotely interesting for many of those of us people who actually have a brain and who live for those moments when films made for grown ups actually arrive on the scene! Woody Allen is still making movies, thank Heavens, but only about one a year if that so the rest is slim pickings enough as it is…

Perhaps a co-production of Sherlock Holmes and the Twilight series would tickle the fancies of dreamy eyed teenagers (as well as the reviewer) when the vacuous Bella attempts to decipher a riddle from her hip Baker Street flat…complete with talking computers and time travelling werewolves who can’t find proper shirts to wear. It’s all just soft core porn for the prepubescent. As for le Carré‘s pretensions toward the literary, perhaps the reviewer should go back to the novels and actually read them for a change. He may find them to be not only “literary” enough to suit many tastes, but very much so: if all stories are human interest stories and the better ones say something profound about ourselves in the telling, then John le Carré‘s writing is as fine an example of that sort of thing as can be found in 20th/21st century English Literature.

Here’s a tip for you while reading le Carré: it isn’t real. It’s a story about the sorts of things that people do - the love and the betrayals (you can’t have the one without the other), the dirty, the sleazy and the underhanded, the hurt they cause, their attempts at redemption, their attempts to shield and protect. Are there “bad guys” in his novels? Of course there are but as with all such creatures they are motivated more by their duty than by any cheap definitions of morality and the lines between the agents of the west and east are so blurred we can’t tell one from the other. That’s as it should be too because as we have seen from the politics of our time there are no differences between peoples and there is no “evildoer” in the accepted sense of the term: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions and our president or their General Secretary is as capable of committing acts of evil as any fallen angel.

It’s quite possible you are missing the point(s) of this story and went to the theatre expecting to see something like a Bourne film, where the perfect agent/soldier defeats everything that comes his way either through his enhanced fighting skills or his super human problem solving abilities. It’s the Captain America, super hero - chemically enhanced human with a headache up against the foul minions of a corrupted bureaucracy…ho hum…I stopped reading Marvel when I was still a kid…le Carré is for grown ups you see…his characters are based on real people with real failings and real strengths, and aside from Anne and George Smiley, they tend to be terribly ordinary sorts as well.

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