About two-thirds of the way through “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” I jotted in my notes: I don’t know what’s going on. I’d been struggling to keep my head above water the whole time, and it was here that I resigned myself to drowning. I didn’t miss a second of the film, yet when it was over I felt disoriented, as if I’d dozed off for several minutes in the middle and was never able to catch up again.
It’s not easy to admit that you just flat-out didn’t understand a movie, especially when it’s your job to understand movies. But here we are. I take some solace in knowing that “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is based on a famously dense John le Carré novel that was previously adapted into a seven-hour BBC miniseries — there’s a lot of ground to cover, in other words. What’s more, it takes place in the halls of British Intelligence in the early 1970s, and I have little familiarity with that world and that time. A person could be smart and attentive and still be hopelessly lost in this thick labyrinth of espionage. Right? I mean, it’s not like I failed to grasp “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”
There’s a character in here named Control. He’s played by John Hurt. The movie was half over before I realized that when people referred to “Control,” they were talking about a man, not an organization. My notes even had it in all-caps — CONTROL — because I assumed it was an acronym. But nope, it was a guy. A guy named Control.
I don’t cite that as a fault of the film, only as an example of a seemingly basic piece of information — a character’s name — that instead added to the confusion. But never mind the people’s names: the really tricky part is keeping track of what they’re doing, and why.
The essence of it is that a recently retired intelligence agent, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is called back into duty when another operative, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), alleges that someone high up in the operation is acting as a mole for the Soviets. The mission is to determine whether this is true, and if it is, who the double agent is.
This sort of story lends itself to a certain amount of confusion, of course. Often we’re supposed to be as much in the dark as the characters are. But this particular tale, directed by Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), is made all the more dizzying by frequent flashbacks, many of which are not readily identifiable as such, and by the characters all existing in a closed-off world where they can use professional jargon freely without having to explain themselves. This is realistic, no doubt, but hard for an outsider to follow. The story itself moves slowly, fueled by suspicions more than adrenaline.
I wish I’d understood what was happening better, because I really liked most of the performances. Gary Oldman’s weary, reserved old spy is captivating, and there are terrific appearances by the likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Simon McBurney, and Toby Jones as other agents and operatives.
The question is this: Would additional viewings of the film bring the pieces together? Or is the information simply not there? My hunch is it’s the former, and I may indeed watch it again at some point. So do we blame the movie for being impenetrable, or do we blame the viewer for being unable to penetrate it? Let’s split the difference and call it a C+.
C+ (2 hrs., 7 min.; )