The modern movie spy has become defined by so much running and rappelling and cool seducing that it feels like a luxury to nestle in with the staid and resolutely unsuave George Smiley (Gary Oldman). A longtime operative in Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service, Smiley is forced into early retirement at the film's outset. A less controlled director might milk the moment for drama, but Tomas Alfredson cleverly trains the camera behind Oldman, surely knowing what multitudes the actor can contain in a minute cock of the head.
That's about as animated as Oldman’s Smiley gets, this unflappable spy with the placid half-smile. His former colleagues are less contained; a veritable den of hotheads and snakes is the SIS, or "the Circus," as it's known in author John le Carré's playful parlance. (Le Carré fashioned a string of bestselling Cold War-era espionage novels around Smiley, and Alec Guinness eternalized the character in two BBC miniseries, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People.) Though Smiley's been shown the door, ministry officials drag him back into the fray to investigate rumors that a Soviet mole has burrowed deep in the Circus; the title, taken from a British nursery rhyme, is the shorthand for the suspect list devised by Smiley's former mentor, the cryptically named Control (Hurt).
What a delectably tense-making game of Whac-a-Mole it all turns out to be. No running, no rappelling, and only a spot of cool seducing – the last comes care of Tom Hardy's gone-rogue Ricki Tarr. He's but one in a starburst of British character-actor talent collectively baring its teeth and eyeing which back would be best to plunge a knife into. Amid all the spy maneuverings, jewel-like glints of bracing emotional anguish are slid into the mix surreptitiously, like leafy good things snuck into a child's gorge on mac and cheese.
As with his international breakout, the exquisite Let the Right One In, Alfredson proves his mettle in authenticating an atmosphere. Even more compelling than the expert costume and set design – a wash of ambers and ochres, eye-crossing wallpaper patterns, and brown stuff decantered even on the office conference table – is the palpable sense of greasy-faced humans subsisting on canned air cut with cigarette smoke. And Alberto Iglesias, Pedro Almodóvar's go-to composer, provides the crucial aural analog, alternating bar to bar between moody and fusty-sounding.
But a film doesn't succeed on atmospherics alone – although if it did, this one deserves a special citation for Most Awesomely, Bizarrely Cheery Exit Music for a Spy Thriller, courtesy of Julio Iglesias' "La Mer." Where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy bobbles is on the plotting level. Co-writers Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have done commendable work in adapting le Carré's twisty source novel, even improving certain aspects (a botched op in Hungary is brilliantly restaged here), and fans of that eternal unknowable, the MacGuffin, will enjoy the brisk dispatch of plot engine Operation Witchcraft. But one wishes for a chewier whodunit – there just aren't enough clues for the viewer to work with – and the reveal of the mole is perversely anticlimactic. But maybe that's just stickling. We always knew Smiley'd get his man.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, David Dencik, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Kathy Burke