Ugh. I’m afraid this is going to be another review that makes me look and feel stupid. You see, if I were the type to use analogies in my reviews I might say a movie is like an engine. In most cases of mainstream Hollywood movies the engine is a simple and crude coal burning one piston steam engine. Low energy output, prone to breakdowns, and they create a lot of smelly smoke and pollution. By comparison, a movie like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a nuclear power plant, creating abundant energy at high output with a minimum of moving parts and a complexity that could be considered beautiful to a technophile. If I were to beat my analogy further into the ground, I could say that, while I understand the principles behind a simple steam engine (and, to be honest, if I were sufficiently motivated I could probably build one that would either work or blow up horribly) the complexities of a nuclear power plant are far beyond my ken.
Thus we come to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is a beautiful movie, amazingly shot and well crafted, but so complicated and convoluted that I kept losing track of what the hell was going on. Characters kept appearing, adding a little more complexity, and then vanishing back into the fold. It didn’t help much that, to a man (and in one case, woman) almost all the characters looked like they had all been pressed out of the same Playdoh mold using slight variations in the color white. Honestly, they all looked like they had been dredged up out of a river. Keeping track of any one character was like trying to watch a specific tuna in a huge school. Even the main character, the great Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordan from Batman Begins and the Dark Knight) I kept getting confused with John Hurt (Alien, V for Vendetta, Hellboy).
It seems pretty obvious to me that this is a movie adaptation of a wonderfully complex spy thriller book, but suffered from a lack of screen time to deliver the story. Ironically, there was also a lot of time spent on stuff that could be considered at best insignificant. Honestly, if they had dropped the five minutes exploring the romance between one spy and a hot Russian defector (all of which could have been delivered using about two lines of expository dialog) and used that time to further explore the relationship between two of the other spies I might have not been scratching my head so much on the way out. As this is a mystery (of sorts) I really don’t want to go into it too much as it might blow part of the ending, but if I had had a better understanding of what was going on between them I might have been able to figure out the motivation that seemed to be lacking.
That being said, the film is really well done. The costuming and lighting scream Cold War Era. The acting was good for what was needed (it’s not that tough to play an emotionless, acerbic anti-socialite, which is pretty much what the entire cast was composed of). However, in a weird twist this really complicated story described as a spy mystery had little to do with mystery at all. The puzzle, when solved, seems to be from the most mundane maneuvers possible. The movie could easily have been about discovering the source of an accounting discrepancy in a huge British bureaucracy, which is effectively what this was about. While there were definitive plot points that were critical to the story, the pacing between plot points dragged on and on. It was like traveling from oasis to oasis through a bleak desert. I wasn’t looking for car chases and gun fights, but a little more focus on the characters and/or motivations would have been well received.
Like I said, I won’t get too deep into the story as I don’t want to spoil anything. Gary Oldman is Smiley, an aged spy pulled out of retirement to discover who a mole is in the British intelligence community during the Cold War. He is aided by Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch-Sherlock Holmes (the new, really good BBC one, which I highly recommend), War Horse, the Other Boleyn Girl) and some other old guy who barely registered. He is at odds with most of his suspects, mainly because he was part of the old guard that the current heads swept away. Some detective work happens, although not as much as you would expect, and a lot of seemingly pointless flashbacks surface and more or less pad out the run time without contributing a lot. (Russian Spy image courtesy of the Political T Shirt category)
The stars. Gary Oldman. One star. Very complicated story. Two stars. For all that the movie was almost entirely shot indoors, there were some amazing camera angles and shots, very different from modern movie production. One stars. Acting was very good. One star. The director did a great job making you feel like you were in the 70′s in London. One star. If his intention was to show you what it would be like to grind through a massive, Brazil-esque bureaucracy than my hat’s off to him, for he totally succeeded. One star. Overall well done. One star. Total: eight stars.
The black holes. My head hurt from trying to keep up with what was going on and I left the theater totally confused. Sure, call me a moron but this is my blog so one black hole. The pacing at multiple points felt like trying feed a bike chain through a hand cranked meat grinder. One black hole. No real attempt to explain what anyone’s motivations really were. One black hole. For most of the movie nothing really happened, and when it did it had all the emotional impact of a minor breaking of wind. Even the final dramatic scene was delivered like a mechanic changing your oil. Deadpan and emotionless don’t even begin to describe this film. One black hole. A complicated mystery that was solved using techniques from the Scooby Doo school of detective work. One black hole. Did I mention confusing? I guess I did. Five black holes total.
So a total of three stars. Not great, and not what I would expect based on the quality of this film and what I heard about it. Once again I am at odds with the greater movie reviewing industry, but I won’t lie just to look like everyone else (in fact, that sounds like exactly the wrong reason to lie about anything). I found the movie plodish and confusing. If you are of a higher intellect you might get more out of this (or, if you like to pretend you are of a higher intellect, go see it and tell everyone else how great the film is. That way they will all assume you are some kind of super genius). There is nothing on the screen that really requires a theater. Not only do I recommend you wait until it comes out on DVD, but if you really want to enjoy and understand it odds are you should buy the film and watch it every night for a week or so. Date movie? Hell no. She will be bored stupid and will want to get as far away from you as possible. On the other hand, with the possible exception of Benedict Cumberbatch everyone in this movie is to good looks what Cheez Whiz is to fine dining, so you might gain some points by comparison. I wouldn’t take the chance.
More end of the year stuff tomorrow, I think. Kind of dry for new movies right now unless I want Bollywood, and I am Singh kind of burned that out of me. I might have to go off on other tangents once the awards posts are done. Maybe finish off that Star Trek rant I had going. Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter @NerdKungFu. Talk to you soon.