Film Reviews

Pawn shop.

Whack a Mole

This quiet spy thriller sets the bar high for 2012

Sober up from the cray shenanigans of Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol with the much less hyper, but still thoroughly absorbing, chess game of a thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Adapted from John le Carré’s classic ‘60s Cold War thriller, the film follows secret agents who conduct dry, British espionage/cat-and-mouse games without shiny BMW prototypes or gravity-defying glue gloves. Sitting around conference tables, smoking cigarettes and drinking tumblers of brown liquor, the spies here discuss the fate of the free world in harsh, cynical whispers.

One of their agents was murdered. He was hunting a mole within their organization, which they refer to as the “Circus.” The big boss, Control (John Hurt), and his right hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are ousted after the incident. Later, when Control dies, the government pulls Smiley out of retirement to find the traitor once and for all before he gives all their vital information away to the Soviets, or to one man in particular, a mysterious nemesis to Smiley known as Karla.

It’s a simple enough plot, but a labyrinthine series of flashbacks and a huge roster of characters make the movie a crackling, riveting puzzle. As one character says to another: “Nothing is genuine anymore.” The storyline is confusing as hell, but watch carefully and you’ll see the screenplay doesn’t cheat. All the clues and answers are there, as well as a contemporary sense of homoeroticism that adds an unexpected nuance to the players.

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson should also get a gold star for keeping the pace intense and moodily atmospheric, something he did excellently with his previous effort, the quiet, yet brutal, child-vampire flick Let the Right One In. Alberto Iglesias’ mournful, jazzy piano/trumpet-heavy score adds even more melancholy to the already tragic proceedings.

Oldman heads up the all-star UK cast and does his finest work in years–acting alongside a man in a bat costume notwithstanding. With his Bug’s Life spectacles, he makes Smiley a frumpy man of thoughtful, tired action rivaling Alec Guinness. Also terrific is Mark Strong (Sinestro in Green Lantern) as the murdered agent, seen in flashback. His compassionate dedication to his thankless job is eventually revealed as touchingly poignant. Tom Hardy (soon to be Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) adds a welcome zest of panicked youth to the stodgy, lonely bunch of suits as a field agent trapped in over his head. “I want a family,” he tells the lonely Smiley at one point. “I don’t want to end up like you lot.” Also stellar are performances from Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch (the title character from the BBC Sherlock series) and Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova.

It may be too slow for some audiences, but if you pay close attention, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a truly thrilling and rewarding film. With a little luck, we’ll see the filmmakers continue le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy” with The Honourable Schoolboy.

Opens Friday at Kahala 8.