January 10, 2012

Tinker Tailor's Perfection Problem

This year's new adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a lovely movie. Great acting by a cast of British superstars (Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong), artsy cinematography and set design, capable direction. And yet I couldn't wait for it to end, was always slightly bored. The sum was less than its parts.

Is it possible for a movie to be perfect and yet not add up to much? I can think of a dozen movies that are wildly uneven but much more interesting to watch: Pineapple Express, The Village, Enemy at the Gates. I can think of genuinely bad movies that are more interesting to watch. They have something, in the midst of their garbage, that has a spark or newness. And it's not just a matter of humor or big explosions; there are some torturously slow and almost empty movies that I love, like The Thin Red Line or A Single Man.

Perhaps below its smooth surface Tinker Tailor is not as good as it appears to be, or perhaps I have only a mild interest in the virtues it does display. Gary Oldman's George Smiley is almost completely without affect, and while Smiley's dowdiness is part of the charm of the novel, its bureaucrat-as-mastermind appeal, there has to be something there. The suspects are one-noted, like Toby Jones's resentful Percy Alleline and Ciaran Hind's dark Roy Bland. Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch provide nearly the only sparks of life.

It's also possible that what made it a good novel gets lost in adaptation. Tinker Tailor was a meaty novel, and like many mysteries the main character's thinking is actually the star of the book. Page by page you follow a great, creative mind in action. And as a glimpse back to a low-tech world, it's fun to see what people can do with just a hidden mic and nerves of steel. But in this movie, that process feels less like thinking and more like playing out a set of cards.

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