Few movies about the Cold War are as cold as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, whose “Let the Right One In” was arguably the best horror film of the past decade, taps into the same aura of icy dread for “Tinker.” In theory it’s a mature choice when compared to contemporary spy flicks such as “Salt” or “Knight and Day,” with their Xbox visuals and bulletproof heroes.
If only Alfredson had injected a little emotion into the mix. His clinical, detached look at high-level British spy games represents a case of mood over momentum — and coherence. The story is as dynamic as the brown and gray wardrobes of its pencil-pushing heroes.
The premise of John le Carré’s 1974 novel of the same name is certainly intriguing. After an operation in Budapest goes all kinds of wrong, the head of British intelligence, code-named Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign. He fears that one of his four senior officers is a Soviet double agent. The film’s title stems from the British nursery rhyme that Control uses to nickname the suspects: “Tinker” (Toby Jones), “Tailor” (Colin Firth), “Soldier” (Ciarán Hinds) and “Poorman” (David Dencik).
Upon Control’s ouster, his confidant, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), is brought out of retirement to probe the possibility of a mole. The poker-faced bureaucrat’s first priority is to track down a shaggy rogue agent (Tom Hardy) who can confirm the “mother of all secrets.”
Set in 1973, “Tinker” is an Oscar-worthy showcase for the production designer (Maria Djurkovic) and art department. The world of the Circus — le Carré’s slang for MI6 — is awash with languid earth tones, wafting cigarette smoke and disorienting wallpaper patterns.
Using this pallid background as a kind of camouflage is the decidedly un-dashing Smiley. As interpreted by the superb Oldman, it’s a performance so subtle, so restrained, that it seems to exist in a movie outside the secret agent genre. (Think Gene Hackman’s emotionally airtight Everyman from “The Conversation.”) The veteran London actor can point to Smiley as the career antithesis of his overacting extravaganza as a corrupt cop in 1994’s “The Professional.”
Oldman’s grounding presence creates a human thread that unifies this choppy procedural. (The same source material was adapted into a seven-part miniseries for the BBC in 1979. At two hours, the film version gets congested and confusing.) Other fine actors such as Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch do their best with agent characters far more underdeveloped.
However, no amount of fuzziness can conceal the identity of the turncoat; it’s completely telegraphed by the casting.
That’s about the only clue viewers can work with to piece together the movie’s multiple mysteries. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” unfolds inside its own impenetrable environment, with director Alfredson turning a cold shoulder to the audience.
(At the Barrywoods, Glenwood Arts, Palace and Town Center.)
• Portland Oregonian:
“A tense, dense and vivid world. If it’s not as byzantine or sprawling as the novel, it’s nevertheless a smart and engaging entertainment.”
“A tightly woven web of shoe-leather detective work, gentlemanly cloak-and-dagger and some brutally nasty business, but ‘Tinker, Tailor’ is driven mainly by its characters, each concisely drawn and perfectly, often movingly, played.”
•Houston Chronicle: Director Tomas Alfredson has “transformed a dense and cerebral book into a captivating film, true to the original yet utterly, vividly cinematic.”