*Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (R)
Cinemark 16, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a movie by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, it was the definitively English Cold War espionage thriller — first a 1974 John le Carré novel, then a 1979 BBC miniseries built around Alec Guinness. That adds up to quite a challenge for Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, not to mention their star, Gary Oldman.
Oldman 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 is a gloomy beige-gray. The Circus is what Smiley and his colleagues (including Colin Firth) 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) puts Smiley back to work. There is still the mole.
A rogue agent (Tom Hardy) resurfaces with a new lead on that front, and Smiley enlists a young assistant (Benedict Cumberbatch) to spy on his fellow spies. Meanwhile, Smiley peers through reflections, refractions and retrospections, not saying much and making a weapon of watchful silence. And Oldman is quite something to behold, somehow making nothing look like everything.
While the miniseries spanned five-plus hours, the movie, a bracing distillation, is rigorously concise. Its pace feels thick and slow, but in fact what's happening is a succession of brutally economical scenes, some reduced to the presentation of a single detail, leaving us slightly baffled.
To mitigate any anxiety about not knowing what the hell is happening, we focus on the ostensibly pressing dramatic question: Could the mole be the guy who's played by an unfamiliar actor and really doesn't seem to be doing much here? Or that other guy who's played by that much better known actor who won an Oscar last year? Or maybe the beady-eyed officious guy?
There's no time to delineate the men, but the film makes a good show of playing that potential deficit to its 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 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 here is to make weary cynicism feel lively. But Alfredson is a practiced specialist of sly tension and playing against sensationalism. As his improbably revitalizing vampire movie Let the Right One In already proved, he knows how to find the ghoulish in the everyday. Here he has the actor who once went way over the top playing Dracula, now subdued nearly into oblivion. Tinker Tailor isn't so much a throwback thriller as a cautionary tale about the soul-sucking espionage machine, immortal yet dead inside.