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"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a spiffy wind-up toy of a movie, without the flash and whimsy of a Bond flick but set among the same caste: British intelligence officials fighting the early-'70s Cold War largely from the confines of a soundproof room-within-a-room. Known as "the Circus," this high council of a half-dozen MI6 administrators is headed by John Hurt, known as Control, who learns that there is a mole at the table; when he dispatches an agent (Mark Strong) to learn more from a contact in Hungary, the agent gets ambushed and shot. Control takes the fall, and with him goes George Smiley (Gary Oldman). When word of the mole rises to the attention of the civil servant who oversees MI6, Smiley, assumed now to be clean in retirement, is enlisted to investigate the remaining four suspects.
Instantly immersive to the point of becoming oblique, "Tinker" at least is driving somewhere worthwhile. Oldman, per his form, inhabits Smiley instantly. He has aged in a fashion that feels almost presidential — he resembles no one more than Donald Rumsfeld in this film — and he plays the old intelligence official with grace and subtlety. The officials he's investigating — played by Toby Jones, Colin Firth, David Dencik and Ciaran Hinds — all embody the gray, rained-on souls of English office workers who happen at once to be Machiavellian top-level espionage minds, playing spook-chess against the Soviets. The closer Smiley comes to the leak, the more the personal interactions come to the fore. Director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") brings a novelist's touch to the minute details of the everyday. Quick close-ups on tabletops, hands and faces build a characterization that can only be conveyed by doting on the visual, and on the small. When Cold War forces pivot around events that transpire at a holiday party, we feel a part of the quotidian lives that strain under global forces.
"Tinker" has been a big hit in Britain, but its delay in to wide American release speaks to its risks, as a departure from what we expect from espionage movies. "Tinker" features more shots from the perspective of files in a dumbwaiter than it features shots of things exploding, and there's scarcely a character in the bunch not towing a bargeload of moral ambiguity. There's very little sexy about the brownish gray palette of the office environs, nor of the officials' wardrobes, nor of the architectural mores of the '70s, nor of the dim skies that plague the English. The men who make decisions in this world must camouflage themselves even among one another. The banality of evil pervades "Tinker," leaving its audience to wonder not whether they have the athleticism and sexual prowess to work as double-agents, but whether they'd have the patience and the nerve to become so baldly sinister as to be able to operate in plain sight.
The strength of "Tinker" is also its weakness: Rarely does a film manage to feel so authentic to its subject, in part because it doesn't spend time spoonfeeding the audience exposition. Adapted from the novel of the same name by John le Carré (who worked for British intelligence services in the '50s and '60s), "Tinker" was once fashioned into a seven-part series on BBC. There is much to be crammed into your two theatrical hours. Not for nothing does the novel's Wikipedia site contain a list of jargon to help along the non-spy reader; a refresher before immersing yourself in the film may shorten your learning curve. You'll want to catch as much as possible the first time through — but "Tinker" is strong enough that a second viewing might be in order anyway.