By Owen Gleiberman
January 11, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

A thriller that’s a captivating intellectual puzzle doesn’t come along very often. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, an adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel of Cold War espionage games, is a puzzle of a highly rarefied order. At times it’s enthrallingly clever and subtle; at others it’s borderline incomprehensible. Normally I’d say that makes it a mixed bag, but this may be the rare case in which not always being able to tell what’s going on becomes part of the film’s texture. Tinker, Tailor (in limited release Dec. 9) is a movie of deceptions within deceptions and clues that glide by in a murmured flash. It turns the very process of figuring things out into a vision of the world.

The fabled 1979 BBC miniseries version starred Alec Guinness, in a classic turn, as George Smiley, le Carré taciturn, trench-coated veteran spy hero. The film hands the role to Gary Oldman, who tips his hat to Guinness — it’s there in his rollingly deliberate speech — but brings to the part his own puckish, deadpan spirit. As Smiley is recruited to flush out a Soviet mole who has infiltrated ”the Circus” (the top echelon of the British secret service), the film leaps from an undercover mission in Budapest that turns into a shoot-’em-up fiasco to riveting think-tank sessions with the Circus’ power elite — testy Percy (Toby Jones), smooth Roy (Ciarán Hinds), mocking Bill (Colin Firth), and fearful Toby (David Dencik) — to a brilliant set piece in which Smiley’s assistant sneaks a file out of the Circus’ inner sanctum. (It’s his own agency, but it might as well be the Russian embassy.)

There is constant talk of information gathered on the Soviets. Is it ”chicken feed” or ”treasure”? Yet we never learn what any of that information is. It’s all abstract, and that’s the key to le Carré acerbic vision of Cold War espionage as a madly insular bureaucracy: For all the trading of secrets, it’s not at all clear that any of these people are actually doing anything that matters. Smiley, pulling strings, is the one who comes closest, but by the end even he’s just another piece on a chessboard in a game controlled by forces that no one — not even the audience — can see. B+

  • Movie
  • R
  • 128 minutes
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