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Review: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' more a thinker than a thriller

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Published Jan. 4, 2012

By Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

The secret agents in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy aren't Jason Bourne or James Bond. Understated in appearance and action, they dress in drab suits and barely raise their voices, much less punch or shoot their way out of a jam.

Suspicious glances and quiet deceit can kill just as easily.

John le Carré wrote the books on these Cold Warriors, British intelligence agents blending into the European scenery to guard against Russia's infiltration threat. As a former agent himself, le Carré drew from actual security protocol. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a movie devoted to his dense plotting, enigmatic characters and agency jargon, compressed into less than half the running time of the classic 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness as inscrutable agent George Smiley.

The role is handed over to Gary Oldman, typically a dynamic actor who barely seems here, which may be the way real spies operate but isn't an exciting hub for a wheel of deception to spin around. Oldman mostly observes, listens and reacts with only faint changes in expression. Even when holding a gun Oldman barely moves. But you sense Smiley thinking through everything, and this movie throws a lot at viewers.

Code words and doublecrosses abound, so close attention must be paid. That will be easy for le Carré's readers, who'll appreciate a thinking man's thriller, handsomely designed and impeccably acted. But Tomas Alfredson's version will be a chore for others, so muted in comparison to modern action flicks that it feels glacial. Admiring the movie is easy; embracing it isn't.

The sophisticated skullduggery begins with a botched mission in Hungary, where British agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is shot and captured. The Russians knew what was coming, so a mole must be operating within the agency, code named "the Circus." The agency's supervisor, known only as Control (John Hurt), rehires the retired Smiley to identify the double agent, with a list of five inner circle suspects assigned code names from a nursery rhyme.

"Tinker" is Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), whose close connections to the CIA are considered suspect. "Tailor" is Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who like Percy covets Control's rank. Roy Bland — a suitable name for everyone here — is "Soldier," played by Ciaran Hinds. "Poor Man" Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) is plain sneaky, and Smiley is "Beggarman." Control conveniently tapes their photos on chess pieces for ID and metaphor purposes.

Aside from Smiley, the suspects aren't as interesting as the younger, charismatic pawns in this spy game, dubbed "Scalphunters" for their dirty deeds in the field. Smiley finds a close office ally in Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), and a distant one in Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), whose Istanbul connections uncover information he can use to advance his career.

Alfredson wraps a riddle inside an enigma and ties it with a big gray bow, as disloyalties are exposed and flashbacks offering clues can't come fast enough. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is boldly dull in protest to modern movie tastes, and that alone may earn it more praise than it deserves.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.