By Phil Hall | December 12, 2011

The cinematic creativity well must have run bone-dry, which is the only possible way of explaining why a new version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is now on the big screen. The John le Carré novel has already been the subject of a peerless adaptation – the 1979 BBC television production starring Alec Guinness as intelligence investigator George Smiley. The beauty of that classic version was its depth and scope:  le Carré’s complex espionage plot was allowed to carefully unfold across the vast spectrum of a seven-episode mini-series format.

In this version, director Tomas Alfredson has telescoped the original text into a ridiculously compact two-hour version that seems like a Cliff Notes overview of the fabled le Carré novel. The hunt for a mole in the upper echelon of Cold War-era British intelligence drives the plot, but Alfredson and screenwriters Bridge O’Connor and Peter Straughan have diluted the material so drastically that le Carré’s extraordinary work is reduced to a dreary and incomprehensible shadow.

Gary Oldman takes over the George Smiley role in one of the weirdest performances of the year. Buried underneath a waxy make-up job that gives the impression of an embalmed corpse barely returned to life, Oldman walks through the film with such indifference and detachment that it seems even he realizes this was a bad career choice.  Oldman also appears to be channeling Guinness’ distinctive speaking voice for his line readings – perhaps to remind us that a better version of the material is still available for viewing.

There are some distractions that save this enterprise from fatal ennui. Veteran hams John Hurt, Colin Firth and Toby Jones crunch enough scenery to keep viewers awake, and there are a few examples of amateurish CGI effects (including a bizarre moment with a bird flying around a classroom) that could bring happy grimaces to the lips of die-hard computer geeks. But for the most part, the real mystery surrounding “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is trying to wonder how these creative artists could have pursued this project without pausing to recognize the mess they were making.

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  1. anonymous says:

    Well…the emperor has clothes, albeit very small ones…but this review is a mess.

  2. Simon says:

    I applaud this sensible review, esp. for daring to defy the herd and point out that, this time at least, the emperor has no clothes. The barely repressed rage of some of the commenters above (the scolds Lando, Webster, & Stillman), who take Hall to task for his unforgivable transgressions, his tone, indeed his “bias,” is a reminder of the sort of abuse an honest critic has to put up with.

  3. anonymous says:

    And the oscars goes to….

  4. anonymous says:

    I tought this was pretty good reminded me of The conversation….I think Phil is wrong.

  5. Dan Prall says:

    Phil, Jack and Vladimir have it right. Having re-read the Karla trilogy and watched the 1979 version again this month, it was a bit jolting to find that ladies’ man Peter was now gay, that Sam Collins had become Jerry Westerby, that Prague had become Budapest, and Hong Kong was Istanbul. The omission of so much of the story really dumbed it down. I highly suggest that everyone who thought TTSS was a good movie both read the book and watch the BBC version. By the way, the BBC version of the third book “Smiley’s People” with the same cast, is just as good.

  6. vladimir hayek says:

    just got back from seeing ttss. as a long, long time (32 yrs) fan of the mini-series and the book, i cannot come to terms with my disappointment in this film. character changes (collins westerby), omissions (anne smiley, who’s she?), nonsensical modifications (gratuitous gay admission) made this a terrible film. after seeing this film, i had the same question smiley had for the mole: why?

  7. Jack says:

    Phil, you’re absolutely right. An abysmal adaptation of the great Le Carre novel; the BBC had it right in 1979. This movie misses so much of the nuance and greatness of Le Carre’s work, that it looks like a few disparate movies cobbled together to form a disjointed and plotless blob. I don’t understand all the rave reviews for this mess. It’s really quite bad, and as a die hard Le Carre fan, I wish it wasn’t.

  8. john stillman says:

    You really have to tone down your insulting and patronizing tone. There are ways of reviewing that are not quite as nasty. It is alsop very telling that most professional critics don’t agree with you about Alfredson’s wonderful version of this classic.

  9. Phil Hall says:

    Smiley, as conceived by John le Carré and performed in the BBC version by Alec Guinness, was never detached from his surroundings. While his stoic demeanor gave the impression of lacking emotions, it was clear in Guinness’ performance that the character was quietly absorbing everything around him. Gary Oldman’s performance shows none of the subtle observatory skills that Guinness brought to the role. I stand by my statement that I considered his performance to be indifferent and detached.

    Even if one could charitably overlook the central miscasting, the basic problem with this film is that the John le Carré text has been boiled down too much to have any impact. While this is clearly done to accommodate the film’s two-hour running time, it nonetheless ruins the complexity of the source material.

    As for the supporting cast, please do not confuse the political process involved in winning acting awards with a reflection of genuine talent. And, for the record, Toby Jones has never won an Oscar.

  10. Simon Payn says:

    I agree with the above comments. There is no serious discussion of script, direction, cinematography, casting. Simply a series of comments regarding a central performance which shows that the reviewer has neither read the original novel, nor seen the TV series based on the original novel, and yet still draws comparison to them.

    Smiley is meant to be unemotional and detached, he is meant to be extremely difficult to read and get any idea of his emotional state, to have missed this, whilst criticising Oldman’s performance shows bias and a lack of understanding regarding the overall tone and point of the performance.

    And simply calling John Hurt, Colin Firth and Toby Jones “hams” also shows an extremely limited knowledge of both acting, and the top flight careers of the actors mentioned, as Hurt is both a Bafta and Emmy winner, and Firth and Jones are both Oscar winning actors. To attempt to simply dismiss them as hams is insulting and displays a breath-taking lack of knowledge.

    In order to be a film critic, one needs a solid understanding of the film-making process, a knowledge of acting, a knowledge of how to script a film, and an ability to make a reasonable judgement based on what is actually one screen without bringing one’s own prejudices and bias into the review. Of course, the reviewer will always have their own opinions and taste, but that should not colour a review to the point where they are ignoring obvious and important points simply because they do not fit into the biased view that the reviewer already has before writing the review.

    A reviewer may hate horror films for example, but that shouldn’t mean that every horror film they review will be bad, unless the reviewer allows that bias to show through. Reading this review gives me the impression that bias and a desire to go against almost every other review to simply be different seems to be more important to the reviewer than actually reviewing the film.

    A good example of this is a lack of mention for the very clever camera work, giving a pervasive atmosphere that the audience always seems to be themselves spying on the action on the screen, or the tremendous performances of other actors in the film including Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong.

    A weak, bias and ultimately cheap attempt at a review that is of no use to the reader.

  11. Ivan Webster says:

    This isn’t a review, it’s a reaction, and a poorly explained one at that. Script, performances, art direction, cinematography, editing — none of this is taken into account. Characterizing a lead actor’s emotions for an entire movie as “indifference” and “detachment” — what director would or could let an actor get away with such unprofessional behavior? — while calling the other actors “hams” isn’t criticism. It’s dislike. You don’t get to be a critic who’s worth reading simply by having like and dislikes. We all have those. What we’re looking for is thought. I don’t find any here.

  12. Jeffen Lando says:

    “Oldman walks through the film with such indifference and detachment that it seems even he realizes this was a bad career choice.”

    Hopelessly rigged and biased review, but the rank stupidity of it really made me laugh.

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