Seeing Gary Oldman as an actual old man in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy—his face covered in wrinkled, senior-citizen makeup, his voice all reserved and Alec Guinness-like, his mannerisms suggesting he just wants to find a comfortable chair so he can sit down and rest—may be a bit unsettling to those who are used to seeing Oldman play roles that require him to be more anarchic and scenery-chewing. But his admirable performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy simply confirms what a lot of us always thought would happen to him as he got on in age: Eventually, Oldman will become one sophisticated, cool-ass elder statesman.
In this adaptation of Brit espionage novelist John le Carré's 1974 book, Oldman is George Smiley, the calm, levelheaded and quite British government agent who has been both a major and minor character in many of le Carré's novels. (Little bit of info: Alec Guinness played Smiley in a BBC TV-series version of Tinker Tailor..., which might explain Oldman's voice.) Tinker Tailor... catches Smiley in his twilight years, retired as an operative for British Intelligence (aptly referred to as "The Circus"), which ousted him along with his boss and mentor, simply known as Control (a cranky John Hurt). Smiley gets called back in to investigate whether there is a Soviet double-agent mole within the British Secret Service—a theory Control himself was trying to prove before he passed away.
If you're not aware of le Carré's body of work, you should know that you won't be encountering any James Bond-style action with this film. Set in early-'70s, post-mod London, Tinker Tailor... reminds audiences what set le Carré apart from other espionage yarn-spinners: His spy novels had more to do with bureaucracy and geopolitics (and office politics) than globetrotting and shagging alluring honey pots. Oh sure, there's some of that too (it's still a spy story). However, Tinker Tailor... makes the case that the biggest concern these Cold War-era government agents had was not getting captured or killed by enemy forces, but, in fact, holding on to their damn jobs—especially when conniving, conspiratorial co-workers are trying to push them out in order to start up a new regime.
Here, Oldman's Smiley quietly, meticulously looks for the mole. Working with an intelligence officer (the memorably named Benedict Cumberbatch) who also serves as his inside man, Smiley keeps tabs on the suspected higher-ups (played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds, all dapper and shifty) whose codenames make up the movie's title, while also extracting information from former agents and interlopers (including Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Kathy Burke).
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson continues in the chilly, stylish vein he riveted audiences with in his 2008 vampire flick Let the Right One In. The movie chugs along the same way Smiley does—in a solemn, detached manner. While husband-and-wife screenwriters Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O'Connor keep the narrative classy and dignified, the movie's final half-hour (complete with a baffling, muddled-to-hell conclusion) may lose the crowd.
Nevertheless, up until that point, the well-acted, well-made Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy keeps the us-against-them theatrics that usually fuel espionage thrillers in the background in favor of giving us a compelling character study of men fighting to stay relevant in a world where they can easily be replaced. Unlike the Bond films, this movie reminds us that being a British government agent is always a job, and rarely an adventure.