Blu-ray Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

STUDIO: Universal | DIRECTOR: Tomas Alfredson | CAST: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 3/20/2012 | PRICE: Blu-ray/DVD Combo $34.98, DVD $29.98
BONUSES: commentary, interviews, deleted scenes, First Look featurette
SPECS: R | 127 min. | Drama thriller | 2.35:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1/Dolby Digital 5.1 | English, French and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Director Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) adaptation of John le Carre’s best-selling 1974 Cold War spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a sturdy, serious and assured adult film. It’s in the tradition of espionage tales and films of an earlier time, an era when undercover operatives gathered information for their governments and weren’t necessarily getting into car chases and seducing luscious lady spies. Not that we don’t all enjoy a James Bond-styled globe-trotting adventure, but some good old school espionage doesnt’  hurt after the flash and flesh have subsided…

Set in early 1970s London, TTSS follows retired intelligence officer George Smiley (Gary Oldman, Red Riding Hood) as he’s reactivated by a government minister (Simon McBurney, Jane Eyre) to hunt down a Soviet mole who’s working in the high ranks of the British intelligence community. Methodically “spying on spies”–former colleagues portrayed by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Ciaran Hinds (The Debt), Toby Jones (Your Highness) and David Dencik (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)–Smiley slowly unravels a deep, complicated mystery involving friends, operatives and events old and new.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie scene

Gary Oldman is George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

TTSS is a spy story that plays on the “simmer” setting. Most of its leading players are middle-aged men and women (and older!) whose “spy” careers consist of decoding ciphers, relaying secret communiqués and filing reports. And that’s how the quiet, careful-to-consider-everything Smiley does his job. Oldman’s performance is a study in pensive restraint as he brings to life a weary intelligence veteran who doesn’t have strong feeling for anything in his personal life (at least, not anymore), just as his professional life—the glorious “old days’ of British intelligence—has recently vanished. His yearning to do something good, something right, is always right beneath the surface of his subdued face.

Oldman is the perfect inhabitant for the filmic universe that Alfredson has constructed. His Seventies’ London rings true while not totally dripping in period décor. Respect is given via stone buildings and woody interiors that are colored in browns, auburns and dull reds and wardrobes that are tweedy and conservative. All of these translate well in their Blu-ray rendering, with no unnecessary and unrealistic “popping.”

The camerawork, meanwhile, is fluid and sharp but, like the production design, doesn’t draw attention to itself. Even the flashback sequences and a few scenes of violence are handled with reason and restraint. It’s low-key presence is its strength, all the better to support the players and their story, an elaborate one that one must pay close attention to if one wants to know what the hell is going on.

TTSS is not for all tastes in this age of Jason Bourne flash drives. But for fans of Le Carre and long, juicy spy yarns about spies that conduct their spying from the office, it’s the perfect cup of tea.

The standout features among the Blu-ray’s supplemental materials—which include cast and crew interviews, a First Look featurette and six minutes of deleted scenes—are the commentary track by director Alfredson and actor Oldman and a half-hour interview with  John le Carre.

The novelist is enthusiastic about this most recent adaptation of his book, pointing out that “it is not the film of the book, it is the film of the film.” He also notes that the movie, like his writing, is not about being authentic as much as it’s about being plausible.

Like the film it complements, the commentary is measured, thoughtful, calm and, well, quiet. Alfredson and Oldman, ages 47 and 65, respectively, aren’t in a rush nor do they feel the need to fill the track with wall-to-wall chatter. Their discussion alternates, among other things, between explaining Oldman’s level-headed approach to his character, Alfredson’s subtle camera flourishes (notably, how he shot all the tracking shots of men-in-motion at 45-degree angles) and praise for all the outstanding performances. Most of all, the pair talk about about how the filmmaker harnessed, condensed and delivered  TTSS‘s complex narrative. Of this, Alfredson appears to be particularly proud, cracking that the commentary is necessary as the film “too complicated to see without us.”

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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.