In the fascinating, if at times droopy spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Gary Oldman plays a role made famous by the late Alec Guinness and almost makes you forget Guinness.
As George Smiley, author John le Carre's middle-aged English protagonist "obscure in character and origin," Oldman is the calm eye-within-the-storm at the British secret service, known more colloquially among its membership as "the Circus." It's wintry 1970s in the story, and the leader known only as Control (the great John Hurt) has just learned that there is a double agent, a "mole," planted by the Russians at the top of the leadership in the Circus.
To smoke him out, Control sends trustworthy journeyman spy Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Hungary to learn the identity of the traitor. A trap is set there by Control's Soviet opposite number known only as Karla. A meeting is botched; guns are drawn, and Prideaux and an innocent young mother are shot. Well, as Control warned Jim, "Trust no one."
What proceeds is a tale of Cold War espionage that, like le Carre's 1974 classic of spy-lit, is a lot like a chess game with Smiley as Buddha-like grandmaster.
Smiley's patrician wife, Ann (Katrina Vasilieva), cuckolds him with one of his suspected colleagues, a tall and handsome rogue named Bill Haydon (Academy Award winner Colin Firth). Smiley, for his part, starts most of his days with a dip in the Thames, and he is indeed a bit of a cold fish. Using Scotch as a lubricant, Smiley asks his questions and slowly and methodically goes about ferreting out the truth.
As in le Carre's fiction, the film is in love with the minutiae of the spy business, the logbooks, rituals, false identities, locked cabinets, colorful jargon, office parties, scandals and safes. Smiley leaves a shim in his front door to let him know if anyone has been inside in his absence. Le Carre's even more successful colleague Ian Fleming has James Bond do something similar in "Dr. No," and in many ways, "Tinker Tailor" could be described as le Carre's "From Russia With Love."
Directed by Swede Tomas Alfredson, whose 2008 vampire movie "Let the Right One In" was the best recent genre film of its kind, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a color film but so drab it looks as if it's in black-and-white half the time. These are gray men in a gray time in a gray business. One of them is even named Bland (Ciaran Hinds); another, Tarr (Tom Hardy). Smiley recruits a retired-spy-turned-beekeeper only to find an errant escapee buzzing inside the cramped British sedan with them on the drive back. The politicians are enchanted by a new initiative dubbed "Operation: Witchcraft." "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" also casts a spell, but it also makes you drowsy.
("Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" contains profanity, brief nudity and sexually suggestive scenes.)