Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

As played by human chameleon Gary Oldman (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”), British intelligence officer George Smiley is as tightly wound as they come, revealing precious little but taking in everything through his big, Swifty Lazar-styled specs.

Based on the acclaimed 1974 spy novel by John le Carré, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is an espionage thriller in which the thrills are muted. A far cry from the mind-blowing action of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise or the steroidal realism of the Jason Bourne series, the twists and turns of le Carré’s labyrinthine plot are decidedly subtle and shaded. Thrill-seekers need not apply.

Moviegoers with an appetite for more complex stuff, however, are certain to find reward. Director Tomas Alfredson, who also helmed the outstanding Swedish vampire flick “Let the Right One In,” is a master of quiet unease. He infuses this film with chilly menace, its languorous pace and tone recalling the paranoia-drenched thrillers of the 1970s.

The story begins straightforwardly enough. Set in the early ’70s, MI6 boss Control (John Hurt, “Immortals,” looking as craggy as a talking tree from “The Wizard of Oz”) sends an underling (Mark Strong, “Green Lantern”) to Budapest on a clandestine
mission to check out information that the Russians have planted a mole
in the highest echelons of British intel.

When things go awry, however, Control is forced into retirement — and he takes Smiley, his go-to agent, with him.

suggestions of a rat nestled within British intelligence won’t go away.
This time, Smiley is enlisted to ferret out the double agent, a task in
which his longtime friends and allies are prime suspects. The air of
duplicity is enough to make one long for the gutsy heroism of pre-Cold
War days. “A real war,” one of Smiley’s colleagues reminisces fondly
about World War II, “Englishmen could be proud then.”

assembled cast here can surely be proud. Oldman is superb as the
guarded protagonist, but he is just one part of a first-rate ensemble
that also boasts strong work from Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and
the impressively named Benedict Cumberbatch.

yet the movie, for all its admirable qualities, is not altogether
successful. Alfredson, working with screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and
Peter Straughan, makes obliqueness intrinsic to the storytelling.
Flashbacks are not immediately recognizable as such, and the flow of the
most rudimentary action is occasionally halted by curious gaps. It’s a
little as if the filmmakers, in an effort to deepen the mystery, have
excised every other scene.

put it this way: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” benefits mightily from a
second viewing. It’s a fine movie, albeit a frustrating one.

Phil Bacharach

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