Gary Oldman is in a tough spot in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."
As the ironically named George Smiley, he's an inherently reticent, veteran operative, given to revealing nothing personally or professionally. And yet, as the central figure in this adaptation of John le Carre's best-selling 1974 novel, he must serve as our conduit, our guide through a shadowy and increasingly dangerous world where no one is to be trusted and nothing is as it initially seems. It's his job to make it accessible for us.
Because he's Gary Oldman and he's such a chameleon, he finds a slyness beneath the stoic veneer, a frightening intelligence that makes him a surprisingly formidable force. Oldman leads an excellent cast, a veritable who's-who of top British actors working today, all of whom keep us guessing as to who the traitor might be among them.
Tomas Alfredson, perhaps best known for directing the superb Swedish vampire thriller "Let the Right One In," has crafted a precisely detailed, retro-faded, well-acted mystery. But he's created a mood in this tale of Cold War espionage that may be a bit too chilly, a tension that may almost be too restrained.
You might feel the need to go back and rewatch "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" a second time — especially if you haven't read the book — because, truthfully, it is a bit confusing upon initial viewing. Like the spies he follows, Alfredson gives little away — that includes cheap scares and easy red herrings, which is admirable — but his film is dreadfully devoid of any sort of propulsive energy. (Thankfully, the ever-charismatic Tom Hardy shows up about halfway through as a maverick field agent to liven things up.)
Smiley, who's been forced into retirement from Britain's Secret Intelligence Service — or "the Circus," as it's known — is rehired to uncover a mole among its highest ranks who's been working for the Soviets. His former boss, known as Control (John Hurt), had narrowed down the suspects to five men and given them nicknames. There's the annoyingly eager Percy (Toby Jones), or "Tinker"; the overly confident and stylish Bill (Colin Firth), or "Tailor"; the steadfast Roy (Ciaran Hinds), or "Soldier" and the nosy Toby (David Dencik), or "Poor Man." Smiley himself is suspect No. 5.
And so he must surreptitiously sniff each one out, with the help of his much-younger assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch, which has to be the greatest name ever). This also prompts him to reflect on his own history with the Soviets.
This is a grim, methodical world ruled by drab, mistrustful geeks who have come to relish their power, but Alfredson navigates it fluidly and keeps the many complicated pieces moving with quiet ease. If everything's shot as if it's hanging in a constant haze, that's only appropriate; we are, too.
"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," a Focus Features release, is rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language. Running time: 127 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.