Enigmatic and deliberate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy makes no reservations while unraveling its heady spy story for better or worse. The film based on the bestselling novel by John Le Carre is purposefully perplexing effectively mirroring the central character George Smiley's (Gary Oldman) own mind-bending investigation of the British MI6's mole problem. But the slow burn pacing clinical shooting style and air of intrigue only go so far—Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sports an incredible cast that can't dramatically translate the movie's impenetrable narrative. Almost from the get go the movie collapses under its own weight.
After a botched mission in Hungary that saw his colleague Jim (Mark Strong) gunned down in the streets Smiley and his boss Control (John Hurt) are released from the "Circus" (codename for England's Secret Intelligence Service). But soon after Smiley is brought back on board as an impartial observer tasked to uncover the possible infiltration of the organization. The former agent already dealing with the crippling of his own marriage attempts to sift through the history and current goings on of the Circus narrowing his hunt down to four colleagues: Percy aka "Tinker" (Toby Jones) Bill aka "Tailor" (Colin Firth) Roy aka "Soldier" (Ciaran Hinds) and Toy aka "Poor Man" (David Dencik). Working with Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) a conflicted younger member of the service and Ricki (Tom Hardy) a rogue agent who has information of his own Smiley slowly uncovers the muddled truth—occasionally breaking in to his own work place and crossing his own friends to do so.
Describing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as dense doesn't seem complicated enough. The first hour of the monster mystery moves at a sloth's pace trickling out information like the tedious drips of a leaky faucet. The talent on display is undeniable but the characters Smiley included are so cold that a connection can never be made. TTSS sporadically jumps around from past to present timelines without any indication: a tactic that proves especially confusing when scenes play out in reoccurring locations. It's not until halfway through that the movie decides to kick into high gear Smiley's search for a culprit finally becoming clear enough to thrill. A film that takes its time is one thing but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does so without any edge or hook.
What the movie lacks in coherency it makes up for in style and thespian gravitas. Director Tomas Alfredson has assembled some of the finest British performers working today and they turn the script's inaccessible spy jargon into poetry. Firth stands out as the group's suave slimeball a departure from his usual nice guy roles. Hardy assures us he's the next big thing once again as the agency's resident moppet a lover who breaks down after a romantic fling uncovers horrifying truth. Oldman is given the most difficult task of the bunch turning the reserved contemplative Smiley into a real human. He half succeeds—his observational slant in the beginning feels like an extension of the movie's bigger problems but once gets going in the second half of the film he's quite a bit of fun.
Alfredson constructs Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy like a cinematic architect each frame dripping with perfectly kitschy '70s production design and camera angles that make the spine tingle. He creates paranoia through framing similar to the Coppola's terrifying The Conversation but unlike that film TTSS doesn't have the characters or story to match. The movie strives to withhold information and succeeds—too much so. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy wants us to solve a mystery with George Smiley but it never clues us in to exactly why we should want to.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
The Soloist is based on the experiences of Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez whose career and marriage are floundering when one day he stumbles into a life-changing encounter with a homeless musician named Nathaniel Ayers. At first sensing a great story Lopez soon realizes there is much more at stake. Ayers was once a brilliant student of music at Juilliard until a crippling case of schizophrenia forced him to drop out. Though currently homeless it’s clear he still possesses the soul and talent of a true artist. Determined to help this potential genius regain the life he lost Lopez strikes up an intensely complicated relationship with Ayers that will take them both in new and surprising directions.
WHO’S IN IT?
One of the chief attributes of The Soloist is its pitch-perfect casting of the two leads who drive this highly personal story. Robert Downey Jr. is very fine as Lopez a man searching for some meaning as his marriage to wife and fellow reporter (Catherine Keener) is falling apart and the newspaper business is failing. As Nathaniel the homeless mentally ill man Lopez befriends on L.A.’s skid row Jamie Foxx is superb going deep to find the lost soul of this once supremely promising talent. It’s his best work since his Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles and the musical connection should not be lost on anyone. The two stars movingly recreate this unique and frustrating friendship and alone make this otherwise uneven film worth seeing. Keener does well in a sketchy supporting role and Lisa Gay Hamilton ( TV’s The Practice) handles her two or three scenes as Ayers’ concerned sister with understated grace.
Director Joe Wright (Atonement Pride & Prejudice) allows his actors room to grow their characters into challenging portrayals that avoid sticky sentimentality. He and screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) let their tale play out very slowly. Admirably The Soloist is a studio film with a real social conscience (a rarity these days) shining a light on the increasing plight of the homeless community. Also a plus are the classical musical sequences which are well-staged and beautiful to hear.
For all its attributes there’s something oddly cold and uninvolving here. You should leave uplifted and inspired but what’s on screen is much darker if not deeper. It’s as if Wright a British director making his first American film was tone-deaf in trying to establish exactly which story he wanted to tell here. Is it about the debilitating effects of schizophrenia? A talented musician trying to find his inner song again? A lost reporter throwing himself into a new friendship only to forget his own dire predicament? Hard to say — and that’s the problem. You leave this film with more questions than answers.
Lopez practically has to force Ayers to accompany him to watch a concert rehearsal at Disney Hall and the resulting scene in which a jittery Ayers insists on taking all his worldly belongings with him is funny and well-orchestrated.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Challenging adult dramas like this are becoming an endangered species in 2009 so it would be wise to hurry if you want to watch The Soloist play in theaters.