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Movie Review

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinkering with a classic spy story: Oldman makes updated version as compelling as the original

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 16, 2011
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The stillness of Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’’ is magnificent to behold. We’re so used to star performances that announce themselves with twitches and tics, accents and earnestness, but what Oldman does as the British intelligence expert George Smiley is an acrobatic feat of minimalism. Smiley is the pasty-faced wonk of the crew running the Secret Intelligence Services, a.k.a. MI6, in the 1970s, and when the film opens, his career appears to be over. Along with his mentor, the Chairman (John Hurt), he has been forced into retirement. To add to the indignity, his wife is cheating on him with a smooth-talking co-worker. Smiley is done, finished, a used-up man.

Which makes him the perfect choice to investigate who among his colleagues is a double agent feeding information to Russia. When it was first published in 1974, John le Carre’s novel turned the spy genre on its head: Instead of Bond-ian derring-do, it went in for bureaucratic realism, a wrinkled nose for office politics, and a late-Cold War exhaustion that cloaked a higher moral imperative. It read like Graham Greene with the spiritual yearnings replaced by worldly conscience, and it had in Smiley a perfect hero for its times: disenchanted but not yet cynical and, above all, aware of the value of being underestimated.

Sir Alec Guinness played Smiley in a much-loved 1979 BBC miniseries, but Oldman and his director, Tomas Alfredson, reinvent the character for our own age of unease while keeping the story firmly in its time period. Alfredson directed the unsettling Swedish vampire movie “Let the Right One In’’ (the basis for last year’s Hollywood remake, “Let Me In’’) and his gift for understated storytelling continues to impress. “Tinker Tailor’’ moves forward in steady, incisive increments, and if you’re used to loud noises and jacked-up editing, the “Sherlock Holmes’’ sequel is that way. In its attention to detail and awareness of betrayals both political and human, “Tinker Tailor’’ is a movie for grown-ups.

On its surface, the story’s a simple mystery. Which of Smiley’s four former colleagues is the mole? The suspects are the officious Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), newly installed as the head of MI6; the brooding Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds); foppish Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); and the groveling Eastern Europe expert Toby Esterhase (David Dencik - if this were 1942, he’d be played by Peter Lorre). A government under-secretary (Simon McBurney) pulls Smiley out of mothballs and pairs him with the young, still-active agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch). Peter is Smiley’s man on the inside of “the Circus’’ and a naïf who will come to see the folly of his heroes-and-villains mentality.

The greatness of John le Carre’s fiction, like Greene’s, is that heroes and villains are hard to come by in the real world. All of us are various shades of gray - with some inclining toward lighter and darker shades - and none is grayer than Smiley, the ghost in the machine. Over the course of “Tinker Tailor,’’ he avails himself of other MI6 misfits, like Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy of “Inception’’), a young agent left out in the cold while trying to rescue his Russian lover (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), whose own efforts to uncover the mole come to grief in the film’s opening scenes.

There’s gunplay to wet the whistle in those first 10 minutes, but mostly the film plays out like a multilevel chess match, not between Smiley and his quarry but between Smiley and Karla, his opposite number in the Kremlin and a spymaster so shadowy he’s only glimpsed in a grainy Red Square parade photo. One of the finer points of this very finely grained adaptation is that the game of espionage is as much a matter of personal animosity as of ideals and expediency - that Smiley and Karla are speaking directly to each other through their moves.

It’s as directly as Smiley ever speaks. “Tinker Tailor’’ is a model of intelligent tick-tock suspense, but what raises the bar is its hero’s bland watchfulness and the film’s use of silences. The telling details are tiny but all cinematic and all delightful. When a bee gets into a car in one scene, the other characters flail and panic while Smiley calmly opens the window and lets it fly off - his approach to spy-catching in a single image. Likewise, a silly novelty song on the radio becomes the aural clue that lets the mole-catchers know they’re being watched.

Alfredson and his production team re-create the early 1970s in their beige-and-paisley awfulness - the newly remodeled MI6 offices are especially hideous - and the claustrophobic interiors hint at a Cold War mindset where weapons don’t escalate but paranoia does. Great Britain, we’re reminded, is a small, useful player between two greater powers, and while we rarely see the Russians or the Americans, their breaths are felt over everyone’s shoulder.

Which is why Smiley’s way is the only way: Keep your cards close, let them see your flaws, minimize your importance. Oldman gives us a portrait of an insignificant man whose mind still rattles on like a telex behind his thick glasses, and as the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, the actor refuses to indulge in heroic gestures. Similarly, the climax of “Tinker Tailor’’ comes and goes almost before you notice, which hardly seems fair by the rules of spy movies.

But Smiley and le Carre and Oldman and Alfredson all know that this isn’t a story of national glory or saving Western Civ but of finding a traitor in a world full of traitors and of damning a man who has already damned himself. The star plays his role the only way he can - as a certified public accountant of human souls.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

Directed by: Tomas Alfredson

Written by: Bridget O”Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carre

Starring: Gary Oldman, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch,

At: Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square

Running time: 127 minutes

Rated: R (violence, some

sexuality/nudity, language)

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