Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (US - BD RA)
Gabe attempts to wrap his mind around Tomas Alfredson's graceful spy film...
In October 1973 the head of British Intelligence, codenamed ‘Control’ (John Hurt) sends agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to meet a general who claims to have information to sell. The operation is blown and a fleeing Prideaux is shot in the back by Hungarian intelligence. Amid the international incident that follows, Control is forced into retirement and Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) is named the new chief, with Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) named his deputy, and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) also set up in top seats. This team of four establishes their status by delivering apparently high-grade Soviet intelligence material, code named “Witchcraft”. Alleline shares Witchcraft material with the Americans, obtaining valuable US intelligence in exchange. Some time later, Control’s former right hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is brought out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), the Civil Servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate an allegation of a long-term mole in a senior role in British Intelligence by agent Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy). Smiley chooses a small team including agent a young agent named Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch).
I was hesitant going into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, not because it looked anything less than awesome, but because I’m often so bad at following twisty-turny plots that watching this particular film only once, twice with the entirely helpless commentary track, before review might not be a sufficient buffer for me appear like anything else than an idiot. Then I watched the film, which was nothing less than awesome, and guess what? I did have trouble following this complex, time jumping narrative, so I’m not going to waste your time discussing it here. A certain degree of confusion is inherit in the material, material I’m entirely unfamiliar with outside this film (I’ve never read John le Carré’s original novel, or its sequels, or the BBC series staring Alec Guinness), and the filmmakers shouldn’t need to dumb things down for my sake. Besides, films like these are made for slow digestion, along with second, third, and twentieth viewings. Things fall into place much more effectively once I was primed with that first viewing, but the artistry of espionage plotting still largely plays out as a magic trick to me, and unlike a classically structured ‘whodunit’ I’m mostly unable to see any of the strings so soon after viewing.
That said, I am comfortable discussing the film’s heritage and general artistry of the film. The spy genre has been largely defined by action and bombast thanks to the (deserved) success of the Bourne series, and the prevailing popularity of the James Bond films. The influence of Jean-Pierre Melville, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin are prevalent throughout these films, and other, less dignified spyish movies, like the Fast and Furious series, but the subtleties aren’t explored as regularly in this modern, effects driven era. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a definitively old fashion production, one that never concerns itself with extravagant shootouts, fisticuffs or car chases, and one that deftly avoids any semblance of a cliché.
Director Tomas Alfredson hasn’t done a lot as director, but his profoundly fantastic adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In is achievement enough alone to pay close attention to his budding career. Alfredson doesn’t go in for a whole lot of virtuoso camera work or flashy editing, but his visuals feature a definite artistic flare. He and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema find real beauty is static, naturalistic environments, and gracefully guide the audience’s eye with smooth dolly shots, studious close-ups, and subtle shifts in focus. There’s also a repetition of visual motifs that assists the dream-like rhythm of the piece, and I’m sure that upon subsequent viewings a clearer pattern will immerge. Had I not known Alfredson was also behind Let the Right One In I probably wouldn’t have noticed, but with this knowledge in hand it’s plenty evident that he’s building a bit of a cross-genre brand here. Both films have a habit of avoiding on-screen action in favour of stillness and paranoia. In the case of Let the Right One In Alfredson staged most of his climatic slaughter above the frame, and in the case of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he often stages suspenseful sequences without much of a dynamic change in action or pace, and allows characters to describe sequences most filmmakers would stage as an action set-piece. In both cases the approach successfully ensures the violence, however brief, startles and stings.
Besides being based on a respected novel and showing the continuing growth of Alfredson as a filmmaker, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a smorgasbord of acting talent, so much so the cast’s incredible pedigree is actually the prime reason most people had any interest in the project. Not having read the book and having not realized the film was directed by Alfredson until about yesterday, the promise of Britain’s best actors all in a row was what kept me interested in the project. Though his performance is nothing short of electrifying, it feels like Oldman’s Oscar nomination is less a solo nomination and more in recognition of the group effort, because for some reason the Academy still doesn’t have an ensemble cast category. Hurt, Jones, Firth, and Hinds are all on point as well, of course, but I would’ve liked to see Cumberbatch get a supporting actor nod. I understand that his work on Sherlock has already wooed the majority of humanity, but I haven’t gotten around to seeing that series just yet, so this was my first real exposure to this particularly talented young man. The bigger surprise, however, is Mark Strong, who has spent the last couple of years convincing us he’s a perfectly grizzled and frightening bad guy. Strong’s Prideaux is presented as a typically powerful presence, but soon develops into a realistically frail and vulnerable character and, outside of Oldman, he commands the strongest sense of sympathy in the entire film.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is shot to look as if it actually takes place during the early 1970s. This is a smoky, rough, raw, and grainy 35mm motion picture. You may assume this look wouldn’t be well served by high definition video, or at least not any better served than it would be by standard definition DVD, but the delightful texture all this grit and grain add to the film cannot be underestimated, and should not be smoothed over by digital compression. The grain does scratch out some of the sharpest surface structures and complex decorative elements, but nothing important goes missing, and it’s never difficult to discern what we’re meant to see. There’s always a lot of structural detail in the frame, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s décor and costumes, and none of these feature more than a hint of edge-enhancement, compression artefacts or moiré effects. Generally speaking, the palette here is desaturated and soft. The colours that do escape this sea of brown, blue, and orange (usually in the form of a background or costume pop) are largely consistent in hue, including pastel blues and rich blood reds. Time shifts are marked with shifts in the palette. The ‘present’ is represented with a cooler and darker look, while the ‘past’ is usually warmer and brighter, not to mention a bit messier in terms of grain and colour smearing.
The paranoia of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is exquisitely ingrained in this subtle as silk DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Blu-ray soundtrack. Volume levels are often quite low, but the stereo and surround channels are constantly busy with light-footed threat. These cues aren’t abstract either, they’re cleverly ingrained in the environment of a scene. The best example of this is the sequence that kicks off the plot proper, where Jim Prideaux tries to escape an obvious trap, and is threatened from every angle by the sounds of traitorous possibilities, undercut by the soft LFE rumble of passing subway cars. The sound design also propels the editing, often predicating a scene change with a sound effect from a location not yet appearing on camera. There aren’t a lot of big aural cues, but what we get is well represented, and appropriately situated, such as jets flying overhead, barroom parties, gunshots, and cars moving through frame. Alberto Iglesias’ soundtrack has its appropriate intensity in its combative and rhythmic strings, but there’s also a fair amount of David Shire’s The Conversation score in the mellow, jazzy interludes. Speaking of The Conversation, the most complex use of the 5.1 arena comes around the one-hour point, where surveillance tape audio switches wildly throughout the stereo and surround channels.
Extras begin with a commentary track featuring director Tomas Alfredson and actor Gary Oldman. From the start it’s clear that this is going to be a slow moving, low volume and technically-minded commentary track. Alfredson does the bulk of the speaking, and most of this pertains to a camera style or location factoid, few of which are the kind of thing I was hoping for based on the film’s historical basis and ‘difficult’ plot. Facts concerning the relatively invisible special effects are neat enough, but I’d much rather hear a bit about the original book, some production stories, or at least some minor behind the scenes anecdotes. Oldman spends most of his time either agreeing with Alfredson, or describing his character’s thought process, which is a waste because he acts the part so well that we don’t need the primer. There are massive swaths of utter silence, often spiked by nothing less than a quiet nod to screen specific narration. Basically I used this time to revisit the film’s plot, minus the benefit of audio.
Next up is a deleted scene/outtake reel (6:10, HD) which includes Oldman cracking, cooking, and eating an egg from start to finish while glancing out his window with paranoia, and an EPK interview reel (24:30, SD) featuring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Alfredson, and co-screenwriter Peter Straughan. These are followed by the disc’s most informative extra, an in depth interview with author John le Carré (31:20, HD), which covers his history with the real MI6, the ideas and history behind the book, and most charmingly, his respect of this adaptation as its own entity, outside his ego. The disc also features a First Look featurette (13:00, HD), featuring interviews with Alfredson, Peter Straughan, producers Tim Bevan and Ronin Slovo, costume designer Felicity Browning, John le Carré, and actors John Hurt, Gary Oldman, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is just about everything I wanted from director Tomas Alfredson and this cast, and I’m sure that upon subsequent viewings my feeble brain will finally slip every piece of the puzzle into the appropriate place. This Blu-ray features a delightfully grainy and rich 1080p transfer, and a smart DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack brimming with subtle hints of intrigue and paranoia. Unfortunately, the extras are kind of a bore, but do include a solid and informative interview with author John le Carré that I’m sure most of the novel’s fans will really enjoy.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 20th March 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director and Star Commentary, Cast and Crew Interviews, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy First Look, Interview with Author John le Carre, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds
Genre: Drama and Thriller
Length: 128 minutes
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