The Film

Growing up on a slew of Bond flicks, and reading the Bourne books at a relatively young age, my introduction to the world of the British spy trope was one of car chases, kinetic action and exotic locales. The tone presented in this film, clearly derived from the  John le Carré’s source, seems a world apart from these visceral spy novels. TINKER is a penetrating work, cerebral and deliberate. Its narrative is one of breadth and complexity, yet the plot is secondary to the astonishing way the film conveys perception, a movie more about the investigation than the result of the chase.

TINKER is a throwback film, to be sure, along similar lines to this year’s DRIVE or IDES OF MARCH. The drab colour scheme, period haircuts and soviet-era plotting do much to situate the viewer in a past time, when the wars were cold and the bad guys were on the other side of a metaphorical curtain.  We’re introduced full bore into the jargonistic world of British Intelligence of the late 70s, witnessing an operation go awry resulting in a beurocratic shakeup. The fact that the film ties its central shakeup to office politics belies the fact that this is a tale of procedure, exposing the almost banal elements that shape an agency that is, after all, simply another Government department.

The structure of the film is purposely opaque, with an editing scheme that will leave those prone to be fed their films in linear fashion grasping for a coherent throughline. It must be said that this style could easily, in lesser hands, come across as mere gimmick. Instead, the very nature of the story (and the mystery driving the plot) is teased out in this mashup of flashbacks. Often we’re drawn back to an event, with the action slowing down so that dialogue becomes even more spare, and we’re left to judge the micro expressions of those in the memory. It’s as if we’re drawn into the investigative process through montage, and it’s pulled off in an extremely effective fashion.

The cinematography may also be considered old fashioned on first blush, but it fits the style of the film to a T. Long lens work is top notch – a bravura scene involving the landing of a plane coming closer into the background of a two-shot is manna for any film nerd, as is some beautiful composition at a safe house across from Big Ben, a wonderful cut exposing a change of focal length that brings the tower into a looming focus. I’ve yet experience Alfredson’s Swedish works, but the craft that he and his principal collaborators (cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and cutter Dino Jonsäter) bring to the table for this, his English-language debut, is exhilarating.

Finally, there’s the cast, the fabulous assemblage of top British talent that anchors the film and provides most of its thrills. Oldman is at the top of his game, a presence akin to Olivier at his finest without the staginess that sometimes crept in to Sir Larry’s form. With the crinkle of his nose or the focusing of the eye he manages to guide the film with grace and subtlety, as if the thread of the story is gliding upon ice, jostled gently by the perspicacity of the man. A film of interior processing, the filmmakers choose not to belabor the process through egregious narration – instead, it’s up to the cast and editing schema to guide us along the way.

John Hurt leads the rest of the ensemble, along with likes of Colin Firth and Ciarán Hinds as the old guard, and Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy as the new. Cumberbatch in particular shows a wider range than I’d seen from his television work, and his future seems secure as a leader in a new generation of Brit-thespian. Similarly, Hardy continues his run of challenging, compelling roles, in this film playing on a knife’s edge and managing to keep control of a character that in less sure hands could have been bathetic. Certainly this is a white, upper class boys club tale, but the female characters do make their mark, none more indelibly (pun intended) than Svetlana Khodchenkova’s turn as Irina, again a character sketched out just enough to grasp far more than what’s given either by dialogue or visual exposition.

I think it fair to say that this is a film that will be shown and cherished by those open to its charms for many years –  it’s a timeless work of craft focusing on the common foibles of disloyalty and hubris overcome by cunning , wit, and perceptive intelligence. Stylistically drawing from previous forms, yet in the end presented with exhilarating style, TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER SPY is a new classic, a remarkable work from a group of fine performers and craftspeople.

For all those that look at the films of the golden age and chide that “they don’t make them that way anymore”, here’s a fine example that a film can be fresh, intelligent, drawing from the past while carving out its own unique and very contemporary vision.

The Disc – Video (5/5) / Audio (5/5)

The Blu-Ray of TINKER TAILOR has been produced by Universal, and in Canada it has branding (including title cards on the disc) for its local distributor, EOne. It uses the normal Universal navigation structure that dates back to the days of HD-DVD, the common half-moon left menu that allows you to select from the various options. There are often “spoiler” scenes that make this layout frustrating for first-time viewers, but in the case of this film the clips are less problematic than with other releases.

The video quality mirrors the theatrical exhibition, a sea of oranges and brown representing the more somber and dreary London of the early 70s. Detail is exceptional, and given that the film relies upon micro-expressions from the lead actors, the high definition helps not only on an aesthetic sense but in providing the full range of the performances.

For a film with long patches that are dialogue free, TINKER is actually quite compelling from a sound perspective. The quality main DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is perfectly mated to the visuals, a symphony of subtlety. There’s a key “gulp” that Smiley makes when lying directly to one of his subordinates, and this pin-drop like sound is as clear as need be. And when the soundtrack opens up, like during the epic Sammy Davis cover of “Spinning Wheel”, your entire surround system will groove to the beat in a hip, hip way.

Both French and Spanish DTS dub tracks are included, as well as English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles.

Supplemental Materials (3/5)

On the face of it, the supplemental materials look to be a bit spare, certainly lacking compared to what the Europeans are granted.. There are a series of Deleted scenes (including one quite surreal one involving Oldman in character frying up and eating an egg in real time), and a slightly risqué one involving a fellow swimmer talking of being ogled from the bushes by an unknown viewer.

The “First Look” is a typical, 12 minute EPK, but is well constructed and includes a wide range of interviews intercut with scenes from the film and its dramatic score.

More pleasing are a set of interviews, most of which are extended versions that were used in the afore mentioned documentary. Here we get to see more from key members of the ensemble – Oldman is his usual, erudite self. He points to the role of Smiley, already memorably played by Guinness, as like inhabiting a classical role, playing Hamlet with the ghosts of Gielgud or Burton that must be excised to make the role your own. He talks of being nervous on set with John Hurt, and talks of a friendship forged with Cumberbatch, and potential future work with Colin Firth. He talks of Hardy’s “rocketship rise”, and that it’s easier to do these type of interviews “when you know you’ve got a good’un.”

Firth gives equally rich answers to the common set of questions, as does Tom Hardy, who reveals that his entire role was reshot, dropping a bad wig and worse Australian accent. Hardy also admits that first time through he just stared at Oldman, being a huge fan of his.

Le Carré himself shows up at the for an extremely humble and enjoyable 30 minute take on his work, all the more remarkable since it has been 2 years since he stated he’d no longer be giving television interviews. He states unequivocally, “This is not the film of the book, this is the film of the film”, and speaks of his involvement as a resource to the filmmakers. He also speaks of the delusions of the secret world, where things like the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion resulting from a bunch of men “sitting in a smoke filled room with no women present.”

Finally, there’s the audio commentary, where Alfredson and Oldman prove to have a great rapport, but this is unlikely to endear any who felt the pace of the film to be achingly slow. We get some nice bits about production, but there are a great many moments of silence that may annoy those not so engrossed in such matters. For those willing to give it a go, we do get to hear lovely tidbits, including tale of the “obscene” lens used to shoot the plane landing scene (“2000mm or something like that”), and the cold attic of the London City Hall where they shot out the window the looming tower of Big Ben.

We’re missing a number of cool features that show up on the European version – Audiobook readings of two le Careé novels, for one, as well as a Sky TV special. Still, given that the UK disc is region locked, for North American viewers this disc’s extras will certainly suffice.

The packaging from EOne includes a DVD version of the film, which I threw in the player for a moment to remind me just how much better the HD presentation looked.

In Closing:

TINKER went from being a film I liked very much on first viewing to becoming my favourite film of the year following my second screening at BNAT. It’s a beautifully, deliberately realized gem of a film, deserving of far more praise than it received. It’s a film of silences and pensivity, and it further establishes the prowess of Alfredson as an explosive talent. It’s a film I know I will watch again and again over the years, and I’m exceptionally pleased it’s now in my shinydisc collection.

With excellent video and audio quality, and given that this is a film that both demands and deserves multiple viewings, the need for any collector to pickup the disc is a no-brainer.

Thereview of the theatrical presentation first appeared on TWITCHfilm.com in December, 2011