His name is George Smiley, and he works for the Circus. It’s less fun than it sounds. The time is the early 1970s, the place is London, and the color everywhere is brown — or it was once, until being leeched into a sort of gloomy beige-gray. The Circus is what Smiley (Gary Oldman) and his colleagues (including David Dencik, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds, and Toby Jones) call the British Secret Intelligence Service, within whose upper ranks somewhere lurks a suspected Soviet double agent.
This won’t do for Smiley’s boss (John Hurt), who is called Control, and who dispatches one agent (Mark Strong) for a quick peek behind the Iron Curtain. When that doesn’t go well, Control and Smiley both find themselves nudged into retirement. Soon enough, however, Control has expired, and a strange little toast-munching government functionary (Simon McBurney) wants to put Smiley back to work. There is still the matter of the mole. A rogue agent (Tom Hardy) has resurfaced with a new lead on that front, and Smiley enlists a young assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) to do some spying on his fellow spies. Others become involved, if only obliquely. It’s safe to say there isn’t a lot of trust going around. All the while our conspicuously bespectacled Smiley, peering through reflections, refractions and retrospections, doesn’t say much. He makes a weapon of watchful silence.
This should sound familiar. Before “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was a movie by the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, who last made “Let the Right One In,” it was a 1979 BBC miniseries, and before that a 1974 John le Carré novel. Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan had a lot to live up to. So did Oldman; Smiley in the miniseries was played, perfectly, by Alec Guinness. But Oldman the impassive beholder is quite something to behold. Facing down not just the ghost of Guinness but also his own huge presence, he now, somehow, makes nothing look like everything.
The miniseries stretched itself out for more than five hours. The movie, a bracing distillation, is rigorously concise. On purpose its pace feels thick and slow, but in fact what’s happening here is a succession of almost brutally economical scenes, some of them reduced to the presentation of a single detail. With all this setup and scenery sliding by — rather beautifully, thanks in particular to Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, Maria Djurkovic’s production design, and the modernist open voicings of Alberto Iglesias’ score — we’re left just about baffled. To mitigate any anxiety about not quite knowing what the hell is happening, we focus on the ostensibly pressing dramatic question. Could the mole be that one guy who’s played by an unfamiliar actor and really doesn’t seem to be doing much here at all? Or that other guy who’s played by that much better known actor who won an Oscar last year? Or maybe it’s the officious guy with the beady eyes? Wait, are we even sure it’s any of these guys?
There’s no time to fully delineate the men, but the film makes a good show of playing that potential deficit to its own advantage. At first we’re only able to gather that they’re all nonentities, as is part and parcel of the spy trade, and that they’re all suspects. Then, as Smiley’s investigation swells, every possible outcome seems too obvious, and we sink into a mild malaise of anticipating anticlimax. Accordingly, the reveal finally comes…and goes.
It’s not just mistrust that lingers in the air here, it’s resignation. Hence the visual equivalence of drab bureaucracy between Smiley’s London and the entirety of the Eastern Bloc. This is not by accident; it informs the whole moral framework. The great challenge for Alfredson is to make weary cynicism feel lively. But he is a practiced specialist of sly tension and playing against sensationalism. As his improbably revitalizing vampire movie of a few years ago already proved, he knows how to find the ghoulish in the everyday; here he has the actor who once went way over the top as Dracula now subdued nearly into oblivion. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” isn’t so much a throwback thriller as a cautionary tale about the soul-sucking espionage machine — immortal, apparently, yet dead inside.