Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the anti-Bourne of espionage movies, a deliberate, cerebral, grim and utterly absorbing film that makes covert operations appear as unsexy as the Bourne films made them seem fast-paced and thrilling. Based on the bestselling novel by John le Carre (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Little Drummer Girl, The Constant Gardener), the movie soberly reflects le Carre’s rather bleak vision of Britain’s spying class, which in his view is made up of men who are more bureaucrat than Bond, far more likely to wear rumpled suits and chain smoke than sport tuxedos and request shaken, not stirred martinis.
If glamor, excitement and visceral mayhem are what you require in this genre, by all means see the thrilling Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol instead. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not an action movie. Let us be honest: It’s slow. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish filmmaker who so effectively brought a tangible sense of horror and pathos to the terrific vampire thriller Let the Right One In, the film is set in the early 1970s in an England still wrestling its way through the Cold War. A mission in Budapest has gone badly awry, and the head of British intelligence, known as Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign, taking with him veteran agent George Smiley (the great Gary Oldman, who underplays his role to perfection).
Smiley is a pale, quiet man whose almost comically large but oddly fashionable glasses can’t quite conceal the sharp intelligence in his gaze. He’s suffering silently, not so much because he has been unwillingly retired but because his beloved wife has left him. As Smiley, Oldman is a man who feels more than he’d ever let on, tightly wound and wielding his self control as a sort of weapon against personal loss.
But his newly retired boss, who instigated the ill-fated mission in Hungary, has a job to take Smiley’s agile mind off his loneliness. Control believes there’s a breach in the highest levels of “the Circus,” the code name for the British secret service, and he uses his influence to set Smiley after the mole, who is sneaking secrets to the Soviets and is most likely one of four powerful agents (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik).
The labyrinthine story, which envelops a large cast of characters, including an excellent Tom Hardy (Inception) as a rogue agent who has information vital to Smiley’s investigation, requires patience to follow. The action is minimal — there are no car chases, no bodies crashing through windows, nobody clinging to a tiny ledge on the side of the Burj Khalifa — though one tense sequence in which Smiley’s assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) must steal files from the belly of the beast is wonderfully squirmy. Still, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so drenched in 1970s sensibilities, is nothing if not restrained: Alfredson and his screenwriters are willing to be obtuse and a fire a great deal of information at you. Whether you’re willing to go along for the ride is entirely your choice.
As a director, Alfredson pays significant attention to detail, whether he’s zeroing in on a drop of sweat splashing on a table from a nervous waiter’s cheek or an amusing ancient elevator sign that reads “Beware of head entrapment.” Most of the film takes place in poorly lit rooms fusty with cigarette smoke and dust; you can almost feel barely-repressed despair leaching from the walls. These men may carry the fate of the free world in their hands, but even when they triumph, the talented Alfredson shows us, they’re simply not that happy about their success.
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik, Kathy Burke.
Director: Tomas Alfredson.
Screenwriters: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan. Based on the novel by John le Carre.
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Robyn Slovo.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 127 minutes. Violence, some sexuality/nudity, language. Playing in: area theaters.