Espionage films are ultimately about loyalty. Who can you believe? Who might go turncoat? Is there a dagger beneath that cloak? "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" confronts the dilemma of trust in every scene. It's the prime concern among agents risking their lives in dangerous field operations and the desk jockeys back at headquarters where the gambits are bloodless but the stakes are ultimately much higher.
"Tinker" radically -- superlatively -- condenses John Le Carré's classic novel, which could scarcely be bounded by seven hourlong episodes in the 1979 BBC adaptation.
Gary Oldman, who muffled his early-career pyrotechnics in his recent role as Batman's Commissioner Gordon, goes even quieter here. He becomes an old man, indeed. He plays George Smiley, an owlishly quiet and observant veteran spook pushed into retirement after a close associate's bid to snatch a prize behind the Iron Curtain ends in blood and scandal.
Smiley is brought back from disgrace and exile to search for a suspected Soviet double agent at the heart of British intelligence. His task is complicated by the fact that the five prime suspects each are careerists who played a role in his ouster. One doesn't want personal issues obscuring a crucial inquiry.
Everything is veiled here. Repression is Smiley's camouflage; the film's color spectrum runs from prison yard gray to "Godfather" gloom. Permanently overcast London itself seems to be hiding in a drab raincoat. We don't get much of a glimpse into Smiley's private life, beyond learning that his wife is unfaithful. But we see several shots of his exercise regimen, swimming the tea-tinted pool at a health club. Even relaxing, he's in murky waters. And still wearing his librarian eyeglasses.
"Tinker" gives us a convincing image of the secret service as a glamorless branch of civil service, carefully detailing its low-tech '70s surveillance gear and odd folkways. There is an office Christmas party at London headquarters where a Santa in a Lenin mask takes the stage, leading the spies in a rousing Russian sing-along. When the agency's researchers and duty officers are put out to pasture, they stretch their pensions with retirement jobs as maître d's and tutors.
The film is intellectually exhilarating, but too rarefied for many viewers. This is espionage of a talky, bureaucratic sort, with performances by Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy that are immaculately understated. The film requires us to look and listen attentively; in time we grow so adept that we understand which of Smiley's colleagues is cuckolding him by the state of the man's shoelaces.
A key visual metaphor for the film's hushed battle of wits is a handful of chess pieces. Devotees of run-and-gun spycraft may expire of ennui. The atmosphere is futility balanced against fatalism. Since that's the story of my life, I loved it.