DVD Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

A realistic spy thriller that's as classy as it is opaque.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


When I attended the critics' screening of John Carter, the studio was kind enough to hand out a small glossary of terms, and a list of the characters, so you'd have a better idea of what was going on, and who was on whose side. John Carter, for all its oddball terminology, was actually easier to follow than you might think. It was no Dune. The new DVD of Tomas Alfredsson's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (out on DVD and Blu-Ray on March 20th), sadly, does not come with such a glossary. It could, perhaps have benefited from one. The central complaint surrounding this rather impressive and gorgeously shot British spy mystery when it first came out was that it was opaque, and perhaps so mysterious that one could barely keep a hold of the basic story. It was something I myself complained about in my initial review. A reading of the novel would have definitely helped, I'm sure. As it stands, we have a hugely impressive film that is still hard to follow.

A second viewing does indeed clear things up a bit. The story of George Smiley (Academy Award nominee Gary Oldman) trying to track down a potential mole in the British secret service in the 1960s all at the behest of his predecessor (John Hurt) is easy enough to follow up to a point, and there is an easy-to-understand aside with Tom Hardy trying to protect a Russian defector from other corrupt British spies, but tracking all the characters' motivations throughout is kind of dodgy. By the time the film comes to an end, you may get why Mark Strong was tortured, and why that one guy was killed, and why those other guys did some of those other things, but the narrative is so hazy, it can be frustrating to the casual viewer.

But, and I felt this way when I first saw it, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is still kind of awesome. The caliber of the actors is first rate, and greats like Colin Firth, Toby Jones, and Benedict Cumberbatch are all at the top of their game. What's more, the film looks utterly amazing. The muted browns of the British offices, the quiet oppressiveness of the Kafka-inspired corridors (the carefully constructed office interiors recall the pointed '70s grime of David Fincher's excellent Zodiac), and the expertly tailored suits (which I would still like to gather in a pile, and roll around in naked) all lend to a fascinating and imminently watchable film. 

Also, this is probably the most silent spy movie I've seen. Not too many fights or shootouts in this one. The calming and insidious quietness of the interpersonal affairs, of the cavernous offices, of what the characters do not say, is all part of the Cold War paranoia that colors all the proceedings.

The DVD of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is, sadly, somewhat trim on extras. No glossaries or plot recaps here. There are a few requisite deleted scenes, but they don't offer any enlightenment, and look great, but were probably trimmed for timing reasons. There is also a commentary track with Oldman and Alfredsson, and it's merely a slightly classier version of what you usually hear on DVD commentaries: A few playful reminiscences, and few bouts of self-congratulation, and a lot of long, awkward silences. Oldman does give a few quiet impressions as to who George Smiley is, and why he's an important character, but those musings are frustratingly brief. The Blu-Ray contains more special features, but I doubt there will be anything of terrible significance. Alfredsson, I think, was more keen on letting his film, however impenetrable, speak for itself.

And speak it does. You'll be encouraged to learn its language.