What makes a good candidate for a book-to-film adaptation? No one would touch Tolkien’s popular Lord of the Rings trilogy until Peter Jackson finally approached it in the early 2000s. And fans of American novelist William Faulkner probably never could have believed his unchronological, stream-of-consciousness interior monologue-filled book “As I Lay Dying” would have been transformable into film. Yet, James Franco began writing a screenplay this summer for the formerly-assumed “unfilmable” prose.
With all these risks being taken in literary cinema, something like a John le Carr? spy novel should be, by comparison, an effortless blockbuster. By design, his books are generally acclaimed for their depth of characters, nail-biting drama and invigorating action. Regrettably, none of these meritorious, film-worthy qualities carry over to Tomas Alfredson’s recent “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” despite a decent budget and cast studded with stars.
The story follows retired spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”), who is called back into action after a botched job in Budapest leaves an agent and innocent bystander dead. He is told by an insider, rogue spy Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy, “Inception”), that these deaths were no accident: One of his old friends from MI6’s inner circle, or “the circus,” is a double-agent for Russia. Smiley must find the mole’s identity without letting on to anyone in the circus that a search is underway.
Or, that’s what viewers might have taken away, had they already read the book. Otherwise, the film is fearfully dull, leaving the viewer confused and far from entertained.
The nature of a spy novel demands the use of code names, intelligence lingo and deceptive characters with multiple identities – so it makes sense that “Tinker Tailor” should be a confusing film at the start. But by revealing nothing about anyone’s true motives or identity until the final minutes, the script gives viewers scant time to catch up to the action, and the bulk of dialogue is lost on all but those already enlightened by le Carr?’s text.
Even with the scattered, shallow script, the film might have been alright if Alfredson had relied more on action sequences – the trait most people go to a spy film hoping to see. Unfortunately, it is here that “Tinker Tailor” also falters.
Violence is overly minimized in any scenario that might border on action: a single bullet wound here, a narrow miss there. Some scenes utilized gruesome images to achieve an intended shock-value, but the characters were never developed enough to inflict any kind of emotional response in viewers. These few attempts at excitement are outnumbered by frequent sit-down conversations to try to uncover the Soviet mole – always between Smiley and some other agent, always enigmatic and always involving a bottle of brandy. It’s amazing the quality of reconnaissance Smiley was repeatedly able to muster with half a bottle of brandy in his system.
The acting in “Tinker Tailor” was not necessarily the problem. As with any film featuring British characters, the casting directors needed do no more than draw from the limitless pool of Harry Potter talent – with Oldman (Sirius Black) as Smiley, John Hurt (Ollivander) as Control, Roger Lloyd-Pack (Barty Crouch Sr.) playing the part of Mendel – the addition of Ralph Fiennes or Helena Bonham Carter would have really made it a party. Furthermore, Hardy dazzled in his first major role since 2010’s “Inception,” portraying the beleaguered spy who falls in love with, then loses, the battered wife of an enemy (Svetlana Khodchenkova, “Five Brides”).
Kathy Burke (“Elizabeth”) plays a former intelligence agent who was fired when she got too close to uncovering the mole. Her acting in this role is impressive and convincing, but underutilized within the plot. Even Colin Firth, in the fresh aftermath of being awarded Best Actor by the Academy for his leading role in “The King’s Speech,” did not offer enough power to save the thoroughly unsatisfying “Tinker Tailor,” through no fault of his own talent, but rather a puzzling and understated script.
Artful visual effects and camera angles give a glimpse of how well-done the film could have been if more of an emotional connection to the characters had been made early on.
“Tinker Tailor” might stay loyal to the book from which it was made, but it does not do it justice; it can’t hold the interest of a newcomer to the convoluted storyline. Many nuances of the writing, such as le Carr?’s reduction of cold-blooded secret agents to fairytale-esque game pieces, could have added a more universal element of depth if greater emphasized – but when touched upon only briefly lost meaning entirely.
Since le Carr? worked in British Intelligence for a short time, his spy novels – eight of which focus on the George Smiley character of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – have been praised for their refreshing realism. It seems that when directed in such a way, a “real” spy story doesn’t contain the elements necessary for a good spy film. Altogether, this work turned out to be frustrating, unsatisfying, and – as much as viewers might try – difficult to appreciate.
3 stars out of 5