Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Blu-ray Review: A Scintillating Espionage Thriller

Paranoia, insecurity and Cold War espionage, all wrapped up in a beautifully drab 1970's package.
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Based on John le Carré’s 1974 spy novel of the same name, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was released in 2011 to much acclaim, eventually earning three Academy Award nominations.  Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the film weaves a tangled web of intrigue, deceit, dirty-dealing, treachery, smoke and mirrors, and a variety of other similar words and phrases we looked up in our thesaurus.  In the end, it all adds up to a scintillating espionage thriller featuring an incredible cast of characters and performances.

Tinker-Tailor-Soldier-Spy-BluDuring the height of the Cold War, a British Intelligence agent is sent to Hungary on a mission to obtain valuable information.  The operation is blown and in the ensuing international incident, Control (the head of British Intelligence) and his right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are removed from power.  Control dies shortly thereafter, but not before revealing his belief that a mole exists within the highest echelons of the organization, appropriately known as “the Circus”.  When his hunch is corroborated by another agent, Smiley is brought out of retirement to investigate.  Smiley is forced into what the back of the Blu-ray package refers to as “the ultimate international spy game where everyone’s motives are in question.”  I’m certainly no expert on spy games, but having watched the film I have to admit that it did seem pretty ultimate.

A big part of that ultimate-ness comes from the high level of paranoia that permeates the film.  As the plot thickens like oatmeal, it reaches a point where the viewer questions the loyalties of nearly every character to grace the screen.  Despite the reserved qualities of these cultured British spies, the dick-waving contests in this film reach almost fratboy proportions.  But rather than bragging about how many drunken sorority chicks they’ve scored with, these spies bluster about their inside contacts, safe houses, and CIA connections.

There’s a level of mistrust that accompanies such behavior, especially as the old guard is replaced by the new and espionage replaces the battlefield in this “new war”.  These are men who deal in secrets by trade.  As such, insecurities and inferiority complexes abound, brilliantly brought to life by an extremely talented cast.  These men can’t even fully trust each other, for a myriad of reasons which I won’t get into in this review.  There are no obvious truths in this film and even the liars who tell the lies are being lied to for reasons they will never understand.  There’s oh, so much more I’d love to get into, but I don’t like reviews with spoilers and I also don’t want to type until my fingers bleed.  You have to watch the movie to get the picture. 

Suffice it to say, everyone in the film has an “I’m about to crap my pants” expression on their face and those who don’t are clearly walking around with a load in their shorts.  No one seems comfortable around each other and for good reason.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is definitely what I’d refer to as a “scorecard film”, meaning that it might help to keep a scorecard handy in order to follow everything that’s going on.  It isn’t that the plot is terribly hard to understand, it’s just that there’s a number of characters with a few plotlines, flashbacks and the like, and it’s all very quiet and mumbly and British.  It’s fairly straightforward while being enormously complicated and they don’t exactly hold your hand through the viewing.  Of course, this confusion is kind of part of the film.  You’re a bit in the dark, as are the characters, and that’s probably completely intentional.  I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of these types of films, so it was a bit off-putting to me.  Doesn’t mean it will be for you though, assuming espionage thrillers are your bag.  As a matter of fact, the fact that I’m not typically into these types of films and I’m giving it a good review says a lot about its quality.

A lot of what makes the film work is that you’re completely immersed in it.  The costumes, scenery, and sets all add up to a very authentic early 1970’s atmosphere.  I’m a huge fan of this type of authenticity (even though I’m sort of just assuming it’s authentic, having been no more than a twinkle in my parents’ eyes during the era the film takes place in) and I’m an even bigger fan of this particular period in time.  So I was geeking out over the cool sideburns, turtlenecks, and reel-to-reel stereos as much as I was the plot or performances.

The drab colors and muted tones seem to reflect George Smiley’s life as much as they do a rainy London day.  While the 1080p widescreen picture that Blu-ray provides gives stunning clarity, there’s a level of grit on the screen that screams (or should I say mumbles?) “This is totally a 1970’s spy flick”.  And even if you’re a bit bogged down by the plot, the performances are good enough to keep you in it.  I don’t believe there’s a single bad performance in the film and I kind of feel Gary Oldman might’ve been robbed when it came to the Best Actor award.  Kind of totally robbed.  The man is beyond awesome and he’s simply one part of a brilliant ensemble cast.

The Blu-ray, in addition to being packaged with a DVD copy and code for a digital copy, also features the usual round of extras including interviews, a brief behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes, and such.  I would’ve liked something a bit more in depth, but oh well.

At the end of the day, I’d recommend the film.  It offered more than simply a thrilling espionage story, showcasing the interpersonal relationships, insecurities, and phobias that go along with the job, all bundled up in a heaping helping of '70s goodness and convincing performances. 

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