Almost 20 minutes goes by before George Smiley (Gary Oldman) says a word in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it's this kind of quiet reservation that spills all over this adaptation of John le Carré's classic spy caper.
When Smiley finally does speak, he says only what he needs to—and the film reveals its information in very much the same way, which can be exasperating for viewers when so little about the plot is clear. Almost everyone's a suspected double-agent, and terms like "The Circus" and "Karla" fly around like they're days of the week.
The key to navigating Tinker Tailor is simply paying attention; there are a lot of characters, none of whom outside of Smiley have loads of screen time. And there are lots of discussions that seem to begin or end somewhere in the middle. So putting all the pieces together is not easy.
In 1973, Smiley is called out of retirement by MI6 to investigate the possibility of a mole inside the highest reaches of British intelligence (that's "The Circus"). It seems someone keeps passing information to the head of Soviet intelligence (that's "Karla"), jeopardizing all of MI6's crucial European operations. Each suspect was given his own code name—Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man or Spy.
It is worth pointing out that, in terms of movie pacing, methodical and slow don't mean the same thing; this one is methodical. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) lets mood and patience play a major role, and though the film may not fly by, there are so many plot points and characters to account for that his slow-burning approach is the right one. It fits the temperament of George Smiley, because it pays to listen closely to what's going on, as opposed to being frustrated that none of the scenes builds to a predictable crescendo leading linearly into the next scene.
Tinker Tailor hearkens back to movies of its plot's time. Put it side by side with, say, David Fincher's Zodiac—an extremely modern interpretation of the late 1960s and 1970s—and Alfredson's gutsy style is even more noticeable; this film is closer to All the President's Men than almost any spy movie. There's not even one hyperkinetic car chase. That is not to say that certain scenes don't quicken your pulse, however. Once Smiley starts tightening the noose, Tinker Tailor becomes palpably tense, even if nobody breaks a sweat or throws a punch.
Alfredson has assembled a terrific cast: Colin Firth is fresh off an Oscar win; Toby Jones' Truman Capote in Infamous was better than the Capote that won Philip Seymour Hoffman his statuette; the malleable Mark Strong improves just about every movie he's in; and Tom Hardy—whose work is instrumental to these proceedings—is rapidly becoming a new Brando, thanks to Bronson, Warrior and this film.
Then there is Gary Oldman. For years, it was his acting acrobatics that made him so ridiculously good. Occasionally, it also made him hard to watch. (Hopefully, Lost in Space and Hannibal at least helped him buy a nice house.) These days, Oldman leads not with his fire and daring, but with his experience and discretion. He's more careful, and it gets him a lot more mileage.
His world-weary Commissioner Gordon in the Batman films is a good complement to George Smiley. Smiley is an even-more-refined character, one with no wasted motion and fewer blind spots to his rational thinking. He still has one glaring bit of humanity, though, which he battles constantly and quietly. This could be, bumper to bumper, Oldman's finest and most-nuanced performance.
Tinker Tailor Solider Spy zigs and zags quite a bit. Characters are barely introduced before they become part of the background, and then an hour later, they're on the front-burner again. It can be a bit confusing, but never overwhelming. This film won't hold your hand as it leads you through its maze. And it won't let you get away with talking through the movie or zoning out for a minute. But what you'll get in return for paying attention is more than worth it.