'Tinker, Tailor' is an intricate maze
There is nothing flashy or glamorous about the peerless spy novels of John le Carre, particularly the relatively early ones like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" that featured the dour, pudgy, middle-age, ironically named George Smiley. Smiley's world of espionage is a sometimes dangerous but essentially drab place, rife with petty jealousies and minor sins, a world dominated more by fearful bureaucrats and dutiful file clerks than by fashionably dressed secret agents who slip like ghosts across borders and into bedrooms.
George Smiley is the anti-007. He's a decent, honorable man in a world where the definitions of decency and honor can very much depend upon individual point of view.
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In"), making his English-language debut with the new movie version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," remains true to le Carre and his vision of Smiley while telling a very complex story methodically and well.
The main protagonist, Smiley, is played with such glum understatement that at first you can't believe the actor is Gary Oldman, who heretofore never saw a piece of scenery he couldn't chew to smithereens. This may be the best performance of his career, and surely it's the most controlled.
The film is set in the early 1970s, the height of the Cold War, and there's a mole in the upper echelons of British Intelligence, someone who is spilling a lot of valuable secrets to the Soviet Union. Word comes into "the Circus" — London spy headquarters — that a certain Hungarian general might be ready to defect and reveal the identity of the mole. A young agent is dispatched to Budapest, but it's a setup; the assignment is blown, and terrible things happen to the agent. As a result, Smiley's boss, "Control" (John Hurt), is shoved into retirement, taking his man Smiley down with him.
Somewhat later, internal politics have shifted, secrets are still being passed on to the Soviets, the Americans are becoming wary of sharing with the Brits, Control is dead, and Smiley is called back from retirement to lead the search for the mole. He narrows his suspicions down to four top espionage officials, all played by fine British actors — Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik.
Smiley devises an intricate, multi-faceted scheme to trick the mole into revealing himself. Meanwhile, his personal life is falling apart because of a personal betrayal that is not unconnected to the betrayal of country that he is investigating. Smiley perseveres; he's an ordinary man, but also an extraordinary one.
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a good, solid movie that features some fine performances, particularly by Oldman. Visually, it's all grays and browns and claustrophobic windowless rooms, and if you're looking for lots of action, for Tom Cruise leaping off tall buildings or Angelina Jolie kickboxing her way across Europe, you won't find it here. What you will find is something that looks convincingly like real Cold War espionage.
Caution: The film is very well assembled, with lots of trips down blind alleys on the way to finding the mole. But you have to pay attention, or you could get lost.