A self-deprecating highlight in the midst of what looks to be a rather dismal season of Oscar bait at the movies (with the zoo-buying and the war-horsing and the dragon-tattooing and the whatnot), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an expertly mounted, exquisitely old-fashioned espionage thriller that capitalizes on both meanings of the word "intelligence." It's adapted from the 1974 novel by John le Carré, the first book in his trilogy centered on British spy George Smiley and his nemesis, a Soviet super-agent known only as "Karla." It's also the third feature film, the first in English, by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, whose most recent effort was the original (and superior) version of Let the Right One In.
Although Tinker Tailor could hardly be less similar in tone and subject matter — wan bloodsucking adolescents vs. dour hangdog spooks in late-'70s tweed — Alfredson displays complete command of the material. The film proceeds deliberately but with consummate attention to movement, strategy and surprise, much like the chess game that serves as its overarching metaphor. Smiley (Gary Oldman) discovers that his late boss and mentor, known only as Control (John Hurt), believed there to be a Soviet mole in the highest echelon of MI-6, the British secret intelligence service. Smiley is actually no longer an agent; he was summarily dismissed when Control was forced out in a generational putsch. The younger men demonstrate a greater willingness to throw small scraps of "chicken feed" secrets to the Russians in order to gain access to more valuable espionage, whereas Control's people (eventually "Smiley's People") remain staunch anti-Communist hardliners.
At the heart of Tinker Tailor, or course, is the slippery slope of such partial accommodation. One of the four second-tier MI-6 executives is an outright double agent, and these are the men who, in the post-Control era, are running the show. They are Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), code name "Tinker;" Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), aka "Tailor;" Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), "Soldier;" and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), "Poor Man." (As Control explains, "Sailor is too close to Tailor, and Rich Man hardly applies to any of them.") Alfredson very meticulously shows us Control's off-the-books investigation of the mole in one- and two-year flashbacks, the investigation which Smiley is piecing together and continuing on his own, based on information from an operative (Tom Hardy) who has supposedly defected but is actually on the run from his own organization. With the help of a young agent (Benedict Cumberbatch) several rungs below the men under suspicion, Smiley begins the complex process of cleaning a house that in many respects he barely regards as his any longer.
Oldman is without a doubt one of our most underappreciated actors, most recently relegated to sturdy utility work in tentpole series like Harry Potter and The Dark Knight. Here, he is able to embody Smiley as a uniquely late-modern British man, dedicated to basic ideals that he sees shifting around him — Western individuality, honor, loyalty, and the very concept of the nation. It's not just that he has to root out betrayal within his own ranks. His sense of dignity shows cracks surrounding his unseen wife's infidelity (for which he largely blames himself and his work). What's more, the British /Soviet double-dealing, unsurprisingly, has American fingerprints all over it. The U.K. is trying to gain entrée into CIA intelligence, and the KGB is playing the MI-6 to gain access to same. So Smiley's plight, as it were, is one of masculine honor and British sovereignty under late-Cold War assault.
Oldman, for his part, displays Smiley's dilemma as one of listening, watching and reacting — individual existence as a war of attrition. In a way, this is also how Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy succeeds as a piece of cinema. It thinks ahead. In this respect it is more like the work of, say, Claude Chabrol than Hitchcock — taut and riveting but never flashy. It lets you know how it will play the game (the name of the game, after all, is "history"), but doesn't show you how the king will be captured until the final move.