Like its main character, George Smiley, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" plays its cards very close to its vest -- too close, in fact. The result is a nearly affectless espionage tale, a Cold War spy thriller that's chilly and boasts few thrills.
Smiley is refreshingly different from the standard cinematic spy. He's in late middle age, doesn't move in very much of a hurry, eschews guns (most of the time) and has a personality so dry, it's no surprise that his wife, Anne, has left him.
Wearing huge owlish eyeglasses and an unctuous mien, Gary Oldman as Smiley resembles a tobacco store clerk more than he does James Bond.
"Tinker" is based on the 1974 novel by John le Carré, unread by me, which was turned into a seven-part BBC miniseries in 1979, with Alec Guinness playing Smiley. With its dense plot and confusing maze of characters -- I was still struggling to keep the names straight by the end -- the story might have been better suited to the episodic rhythms of television than a two-hour movie.
The film begins with the fall of the leader of British Secret Intelligence Services, known only as Control (John Hurt). He had sent one of his top agents, Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), to Hungary to learn the identity of a double agent at the very top of their leadership. The mission goes awry, Prideaux is shot, and Control and Smiley, his right-hand man, are brought down in the ensuing scandal.
But was the theory of a mole really nonsense? Suffering through a lonely forced retirement, Smiley is given a shot at redemption when the civilian leadership appoints him to learn the truth. This proves quite a challenge, since the four men Control suspected now run "the Circus," as the members of the intelligence agency refer to themselves.
They are: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds).
Alleline would seem to be the most likely suspect, since he openly challenged Control's authority and ended up assuming the position for himself. Alleline has had a great deal of success running "Witchcraft," a super-secret operation that has opened up a pipeline of information from inside the Soviet Union.
Smiley only has a few allies, including a promising young agent, Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an old retiree. He catches a break when Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), a rakish spy who first uncovered the theory of the mole and had thought to have gone rogue, turns up at his house.
I won't try to summarize the different twists and turns of the plot, mostly because it remains a blur. It's old-school cloak-and-dagger stuff, with everyone simultaneously suspicious of each other and highly on guard.
Director Tomas Alfredson, the Swede behind the moody vampire drama "Let the Right One In" (which was followed by an American remake), and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan seem intent on crafting a film that resembles its protagonist too much.
It's one thing to have the main character be fetchingly mysterious, and quite another to have him remain a total cipher.
Despite a fine performance by Oldman, George Smiley has no interior, and serves only to investigate and find things out to further the plot. Watching a movie about him is like playing chess against a computer.
-- Christopher Lloyd is co-founder of TheFilmYap.com.