The Mystery of Chessboxing: a review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Far be it for me to complain about a movie being too smart, too complex, too slow, or too damn British. After all, I’m a huge fan of cool, intricate works like The Wire, The Conversation, or The Lives of Others. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at times recalls these works in its complete and total creation of an immersive world. The filmmaker presentation of Eastern Europe and British espionage agency MI6 is immaculately detailed. On many levels, this film is a masterpiece. But it’s also, as the British themselves would say, a bit of a bore.

And it really shouldn’t be. The performances and the visuals are top-notch, and the score–when not reminiscent of David Shire’s austere piano soundtrack for The Conversation–is full of swelling, bleeding horns that aid the filmmakers complete creation of Eastern Europe in the early seventies. It’s hard to tell exactly what doesn’t connect. Is it a mishandling of tone? The sometimes low-grade pulse the film plods along with? The misplaced sense of urgency?

The film, like the John Le Carre classic from which it is based, is positioned as an antithesis to explosive spy thrillers like that of the James Bond franchise. Instead of gadget-wielding men battling against cartoonish super-villains, we have government functionaries who smoke a lot, drink a lot, talk a lot, and do espionage mainly through dossiers, manila folders and logbooks. And that’s to the film’s credit; like David Fincher’s recreation of The San Francisco Chronicle’s newsroom in Zodiac, the filmmakers behind Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ground their MI6 in reality, showcasing the organization’s protocols and hierarchies. Le Carre himself was employed by MI6 during the Cambridge Five scandal and used those experiences as the basis of much of his work, including TTSS.

Forced into retirement after a failed operation, one such guileless anti-hero, George Smiley (played by Gary Oldman) is tasked with rooting out a possible Soviet mole in “The Circus,” a boy’s club of high-ranking intelligence officers in MI6. Smiley’s mentor and former head of “The Circus” Control (John Hurt) treated rumors of the mole seriously, assigning code-names to each of the men closest to him; “Tinker” is the snide Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), “Tailor” is adulterous Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), “Soldier” is Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), “Poor Man” is Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and finally, George Smiley is “Beggarman.” There you go, title explained.

It’s often a critical assumption that if a work makes you feel like one of its characters then it has succeeded on some fundamental level. For example, Zodiac with its exhausting length and barrage of details often made you feel like one of the investigators. Likewise, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy often leaves the audience a confused participant in its counter-intelligence chess game. Trusting of the audience’s ability to follow the brinksmanship of Cold-War era spies and Smiley’s investigation—perhaps to a fault—the film unnecessarily adds layers of obfuscation to an already knotty plot. It doesn’t help, to these American ears, that all of the film’s dialogue is stifflingly, well, British.

Although the plot and dialog are difficult to manage, you still, ultimately, understand where the film is going. By the end, most things fall into place, never mind a misunderstood minor plot thread here or unintelligible dead-pan barb there. Despite a viewing experience that often feels like watching a foreign film without the aid of subtitles, the bristling performances, the filmmaker’s attention to details, and the stunning production design work assure us that even when it doesn’t make sense to us, it makes sense to someone. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a film that both requires and rewards patience, an apt lesson that Oldman’s character imparts on his ward, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) over the course of this complex and slowly unwinding game of cat and mouse.