This atmospheric spy picture, set mostly in 1974, has a simple enough setup: There's allegedly a Soviet mole at the very top of the British intelligence community, and George Smiley (Gary Oldman), who once belonged to that elite half-dozen of super spies before being forced into retirement after a botched deal in Budapest, is quietly tapped to ferret out said mole.
Smiley only has four unsavory cohorts to choose from, but even then, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy isn't really an effective whodunit. In fact, I found myself not caring in the least who the mole was, and the story may not really care either. What this film - based on the John le Carré bestseller which was published in the year the story takes place - seems more interested in is examining the soul of the spy, and how he balances his love for espionage with the pressures and desires of his personal life.
Oldman, who has admitted to channeling the spirit of Alec Guinness (the Smiley of the original BBC television movies), is in fine form. His work is much quieter and more vulnerable than usual, and he looks much older as well. He leads an enviable cast of in-demand UK talent, from Colin Firth to Tom Hardy to Benedict Cumberbatch. There's even John Hurt, seen mostly in flashback as Smiley's dearly departed boss, adding his whiskey-throated wryness to the mix.
Tinker Tailor is a spectacularly European film, shot in London, Istanbul, and Budapest, co-financed by Britain, Germany, and France, directed by a Swede, scored by a Spaniard (the great Alberto Iglesias), and shot by a Dutchman. Tomas Alfredson, who made a name for himself with the extraordinary vampire film Let the Right One In, again proves his talent for capturing the past with authenticity, although any real film from 1974 would reveal hairstyles and suits far more outlandish than the understated '70s look on display here. (Perhaps it was felt that true realism would be so silly-looking as to be distracting.) He's also pieced together an elegant character study, albeit one hidden within the trappings of a mystery thriller.
I can't say that Tinker Tailor wound up staying with me for very long, but it's smart, sophisticated storytelling, which is always welcome.