In a time when people think the Jason Bourne movies are the definitive depiction of a true-to-life spy, we need a good dose of reality. How ironic to find a film like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, full of lies and half-truths among its characters, to be by far the most honest in terms of espionage.

In 1973, British Intelligence is right in the thick of the Cold War, making every effort possible to stay ahead of the Soviets. Such a venture involves dangerous missions, but when Agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is nearly killed in Hungary, the men responsible for putting him in peril are on the chopping block. The head of the operation, Control (John Hurt), and No. 2 George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced to leave their careers in disgrace. Control’s subsequent death hits Smiley especially hard, with his life suddenly inert and purposeless. It’s not long before he’s brought back into the fold to serve a new function — to discern which of his former colleagues may be a traitor.

With tinges of gray in his hair and thick, humorless spectacles, Oldman looks exactly the part of a secret agent whose greatest responsibility is to sit behind a desk and read files. When it comes to the actor’s emotional spectrum — on which his fiery Sid Vicious rates a ten, Sirius Black a five and his James Gordon of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise a one — Smiley would probably be a negative three, so subdued and quiet that he practically blends into the background.

And with a plethora of British talent filling out the cast, it’s all the more impressive that Oldman is still the best of the bunch. Hurt is typically mesmerizing as his raspy superior, who’s been investigating a mole problem in the Intelligence department — code-named “the Circus” — for quite a while before his health took a turn for the worse. Could it be Control’s replacement, Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), who advocates for sharing information with the Americans or maybe his cronies, Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase (Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik)? Perhaps ladies man Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), who was especially close with Prideaux, portrayed expertly by a stony Strong.

As for younger agents, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch both go blond for their respective roles as Ricki Tarr, who first uncovers the gap in secrecy, and Smiley’s assistant, Peter Guillam, risking his hide by snooping around for information. Among all these men, Kathy Burke provides a key presence playing Connie Sachs, a member of the Circus who’s silently swept under the rug for asking a few too many questions.

With many spy features, it’s all too obvious that there will be some kind of revelation near the end where the protagonist realizes he’s had somebody under his nose all along – whom he shouldn’t have trusted. Besides being the central issue at hand, this enigma is one that doesn’t unwrap easily and, depending on how well you pay attention, you may still not know the answer by the conclusion. You’ve got to know what you’re in for with anything by John le Carré, upon whose novel — which was also adapted for TV and radio by the BBC — the movie is based. Just like The Constant Gardener, this isn’t something you go in the theater for if you’re looking for quick entertainment.

The slow, but rewarding, pace lets you take in all the nuances of this world in which national security is mostly done over the phone or via typewriter. The set design of the Circus is deceptively blasé, bustling with life even when it looks the least busy. Told mostly through flashbacks, the story is dredged up by Smiley, revisiting crucial moments again and again, notably an office Christmas party, which not only gives us a look into the minds of his associates, but also lets us hear Hurt say of a bowl of fruit punch, “It’ll take us five hours to get drunk on this monkey’s piss!” Such quotable moments are far and few between in the Oscar-nominated screenplay, but that’s not what matters. Knowing the wealth of information that comes from the MI6 days of David James Moore Cornwell — John le Carré is a nom de plume — is all we need.

The complexity of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy may make it too dry for some viewers, but for those who are game for a tale of spies who don’t need to state how they like their martinis served, you will be rewarded. Though it says nothing akin to “James Bond will return” in the end credits, let’s hope Oldman will make another appearance as Smiley.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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