Former British intelligence agent John le Carre wrote a series of best-selling spy novels, all of which are as far from Ian Fleming's James Bond as you can get. One of his most acclaimed books -- 1974's, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" -- was made into a well-regarded mini-series back in the 1979 with Alec Guinness.
Now this classic story of Cold War intrigue has been remade for the big screen, with a first rate cast, and smart direction from Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, who did the fantastic vampire film, "Let the Right One In."
The story begins in 1973 with a British spymaster nicknamed "Control" who is convinced the Russians have a mole deep inside MI6. He's forced out after an operation in Hungary goes terribly wrong: a top agent is shot during a café meeting with a potential defector. That scene is excellently played and filled with tension, complete with a nervous waiter dripping a single bead of sweat onto their table.
Gary Oldman enters the picture as George Smiley, a lieutenant to the former spy chief who was also forced out after the Hungary fiasco. He's recruited by a British undersecretary to come back to MI6 (aka "The Circus") and weed out the mole that others at the agency don't believe exists.
Oldman who made a career of playing unforgettable villains ("Air Force One" and "True Romance") is a great choice for the role of the plodding, understated, yet extremely efficient Smiley. He rarely shows emotion, but one senses he'll get the job done.
The agent needs help in his mission, and enlists the services of a younger spy -- Peter Gulliam -- played by Benedict Cumberbatch of "The Other Boleyn Girl." Peter is clearly the hippest thing at the agency. Not only does he sport a mod haircut, he also wears brightly colored ties and has a reputation as a ladies man. (The women at "The Circus" virtually swoon whenever he enters.)
Smiley sends him on a mission to steal some documents from deep within the heart of the agency -- another simple, yet riveting scene. It's made all the more fascinating by the low tech trappings of the building. There are no computers, high tech monitors or spy satellites -- just typewriters and file folders.
The top notch cast also includes Oscar-winner Colin Firth ("The King's Speech") as another agency official who is on the suspect list of potential moles. Firth has a more supporting role in the movie, but clearly dominates the screen whenever he appears. One particularly memorable scene has him making the rounds at the agency's Christmas party when a Santa Claus wearing a Lenin mask appears and starts singing the Soviet national anthem.
Much like the real Cold War, there are many shades of grey in the story. The screenplay by Peter Straughan ("The Debt" and "The Men Who Stare at Goats") and Bridget O'Connor features a number of subtle hints rather than direct answers, but the movie certainly doesn't suffer for it. My only negative criticism is a lengthy scene early in the film, featuring the various characters walking around, carrying their briefcases. It seems painfully pointless, but happily the movie gets back on track for the duration.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" isn't packed with action, but it does have its thrilling moments. This is the type of film that one thinks about and discusses long after leaving the theatre.