"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is a brilliant thriller, a seething exploration of male insecurity disguised as an art-house genre film, with director Tomas Alfredson masterfully conducting a world-class cast of actors.
"Tinker, Tailor," based on John Le Carre's opus, is your classic Cold War thriller, about a career spy put out to pasture, only to be brought back in when it's learned that a Russian mole has infiltrated the very top of British intelligence, aka The Circus. Working off scraps of intel assembled by his now-deceased boss, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) must determine which of his former colleagues –Tinker, Tailor, Soldier or Spy (nicknames derived from an old children's rhyme) is the man feeding England's secrets to the Reds.
Casting a notorious scenery chewer like Oldman as Smiley was a bold stroke that pays of big time. In his recurring role as Jim Gordon in Chris Nolan's Batman cycle, Oldman's shown an ability to downshift, but that was in a minor role in a huge film. Here, Oldman's at the center of the action, beset on all sides, unable to tell friend from foe. Oldman himself has called Smiley a "volcano," an apt description of the man, whose serene exterior belies an internal powder keg, and that tension is conveyed perfectly.
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But Oldman is only the lead of a huge and talented cast that includes Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Kathy Burke and Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong—in the world of sports, that's what's known as a deep bench. Basically every scene is driven by one of Britain's very best actors. In a story as quiet and subtle as "Tinker," that level of craftsmanship is essential, because under such conditions, an actor's misstep is amplified by the silence surrounding it.
Alfredson proved himself a master minimalist with his 2008 vampire film, "Let the Right One In," and here manages to do even more with less. From a tiny trailer parked in the English countryside to open-floor office spaces, Alfredson brilliantly uses the architecture of most every scene to convey the characters' interiors.
What's truly amazing is that Alfredson, and screenwriters Peter Straughn and Bridget O'Connor, manage to tell the same story the BBC did in its 1979 mini-series (starring Alec Guinness), but in one-third the time with a very sparse script, without really sacrificing any key elements. There are a lot of moving parts in "Tinker, Tailor," and the story moves back-and-forth across time and countries, but Alfredson weaves it all together into a gripping portrait of cat-and-mouse played by petty men who've somehow been entrusted to vie for global domination.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is a white-knuckle spy mystery, storytelling at its best, fueled by great acting and kept on course by the steady hand of a director in complete control.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" expands today into more than 800 theaters across the country.