For a guy named Smiley, the central character of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” doesn’t do a lot of smiling.
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.
But 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.”
The 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.
And 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.