There's a cold, calculated method to the way Tomas Alfredson handles the secret-agent game in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It probably has something to do with living in Sweden, where cold and calculated is almost a way of life.
The director's structured approach to vampires in 2008's Let the Right One In shook up the genre, resulting in the best bloodsucker movie ever made. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — based on John le Carré's acclaimed 1974 novel — doesn't reinvent spy movies in the same way, but Alfredson stages the story of a Cold War-era spy called out of retirement to investigate his co-workers with equal measures of quiet thrills and dense suspense.
The film opens with a secret meeting gone wrong at a Budapest cafe in 1973, which leaves a spy shot and bleeding in the street. A short while later, recently fired middle-age British intelligence agent George Smiley (expertly played by Gary Oldman) is called in to finish the botched job. Turns out there's a mole in the agency, and it's likely one of the spies in Smiley's old circle. It's up to him to secretly find out who's been passing on info to the Russians.
For the next two hours, Smiley sifts through notes, snoops around apartments, and assembles the tiny pieces that may or may not lead back to one of his colleagues — John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and The King's Speech Oscar-winner Colin Firth, among them.
Like any spy story worth its double- and triple-crosses, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets confusing. The movie throws in characters without introductions, making it unclear who's doing what, why they're doing it, or even which side they're supposed to be on. Alfredson never comes close to dumbing down the plot for audiences used to James Bond's globetrotting adventures.
Still, once things settle into place and you zero in on Oldman's studied, subtle performance, the movie begins to take shape, and the mystery at the center of the whole thing starts to jell. You'll still be confused, but at least some of it begins to make a little sense. This is where Alfredson's Nordic roots really come in handy. He rarely sympathizes or takes sides with anyone onscreen. (Hell, if I didn't know Smiley was the hero of other books, I would've counted him as the double agent.) Alfredson presents a matter-of-fact look at the spy business that's heavy on dialogue and clandestine moves.
Oldman, packing extra pounds and wrinkles, is terrific — weary and cynical as an aging spy called back into "the circus" to investigate his friends. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy doesn't stray too far from other Cold War dramas that leave some room for a little gray between the black and the white. But it's smarter than most of them, taking on the dimensions and complications that come with such a cold and calculated job.