Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A good friend said that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should have been named “Painfully. Slow. Poorly. Explained.” I can easily see where he’s coming from, but my experience was so much different from his. I am a fan of espionage books, and I like John Le Carre. What’s more, I love nuanced and tight acting and I particularly love accurate depictions of old espionage, especially British style.

This movie gives me all of that, so I loved it. Here’s a trailer:

The deets:

Wide release on January 6, 2012 (Limited release a couple weeks earlier, I think to qualify for 2011 Oscars)

Written by (based on a book by John Le Carre): Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan

Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Starring: Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, and Toby Jones.

*    *    *    *    *

Since this movie was released, albeit narrowly, in 2011, it is on my list of 2011 rankings. Incidentally, it is ranked at #12 for the year.


Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy film with zero explosions. It’s a thriller with about five gunshots. There are no six-pack abs, no bursting biceps, and one of the main, and best, characters is a terrified yet courageous gay man.

So you might guess that it’s not your normal spy movie. It is, some might say painfully, focused on accurately depicting the machinations involved in discovering who a mole is in British Intelligence at the height of the Cold War. It is slow moving, but that is an accurate portrayal of careful chess moves performed to try to not let the evil Soviet spies know what’s going on.

Essentially, the story follows George Smiley’s retirement and return. But the story is also secondary. Smiley is brought out of retirement to figure out who the mole is. He has to work around a new generation of zealous folks running MI6 (the Circus), and he also has to try to not let the Soviets know he’s onto them.


Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a man forced into retirement, along with his boss, Control (John Hurt), after an operation goes very wrong and a star field agent is killed. This agent is Prideaux, played by Mark Strong, in the man’s easily most understated performance yet. He hits the ball so far out of the park with his performance that the ball might have achieved orbit.

Oldman’s performance is so plain, so humdrum, that you wonder if he’s acting. But then you remember his work in Harry Potter, and in the Dark Knight franchise, and you see he’s acting all right. He’s acting his socks off. Smiley is a deliberately plain man who has fought hard to rein his vanity, frustration, and fury in. He swims every morning in a murky looking river, maintaining an average shape. He wears plain business attire and keeps his voice under tight control. This deliberate personality-less-ness is wonderful and is cracked only when he gets new glasses. Watch closely! So good.

Then you have Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Toby Jones just taking your breath away with the depth of their acting. Colin Firth is so recognizable, so wildly loved from his Darcy work, that you will be surprised that you forget it’s him playing this part. He is a fine, fine actor. As is Toby Jones, who plays a sort of antagonist, but one that you understand and have no trouble empathizing with.

Then there’s Mr. Cumberbatch. His character is not made to be a field agent. But his loyalty and integrity will not let him not do his job. His scenes when he’s on assignment from Smiley are amazing.

What is wonderful about this movie is that the characters are so real, so present in the excellent production design, that you can’t tear your eyes away. And the mannerisms and insults and dialogue and things left unsaid are so honed, so very British, that I laughed and hooted and gasped.

I adored this film.

Watch for the toast. Really, watch for it.

Content warning: There is some nudity and far-off sexual activity. There is some matter-of-fact violence and blood and some language.

Writing: 5          Acting: 5          Overall: 5

Don’t believe me? See if my review matches those on Rotten Tomatoes.

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About jared

Jared Garrett works as a writer, the manager of a program development department in the corporate world, and an instructional designer. He is a family man with an adorable, fun, and way-too-smart wife, six silly kids, a new house with an overgrown back yard, seven fish, and a bunch of chickens. He has written fiction, user manuals, SEO copy, radio scripts and textbooks and has won first place in the Mayhew writing contest at BYU and received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. He lives at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains and is currently seeking representation for his myriad completed novels.
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