Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman
Agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and retired spymaster George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are on the trail of a mole in Britain's Secret Intelligence Service © 2011 Focus Features

This first-time feature version of the John le Carré spy vs spy novel is less stodgy than the 1979 BBC miniseries, which seemed intent on showing how boringly bureaucratic international espionage could be. Although that adaptation boasted an excellent cast including Alec Guinness and Ian Richardson, it was soporifically slow moving.

While this more concise version has less time to get lost down narrative dark alleys, it occasionally seems at odds with itself. A stereotype-destroying point of the story is that a bunch of snippy middle-aged men in unremarkable offices are the ones pulling the strings of secret agents who are nowhere near as glamorous as their pop-culture counterparts. But that theme is undercut here by a bit of strange set design.

Instead of making the agency’s headquarters an unexceptional office building, as the miniseries did, the movie makes the place look like a hipster-on-the-cheap open-floorplan ad agency full of metallic workstation cubes. The unit where the top brass meet is wallpapered with orange-and-black acoustic foam, which looks so inappropriately goofy it should have been in a Get Smart! Halloween episode.

Gary Oldman plays the quietly competent George Smiley, retired from England’s Secret Intelligence Service after one of his boss’s foreign missions went wrong. John Hurt over-emotes shamelessly as said boss, known only as Control, before his character snuffs it. He leaves behind the unsolved mystery of which top-level manager is a double-agent mole funneling secrets to the Soviets.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Colin Firth
Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is the suspect codenamed Tailor © 2011 Focus Features

Smiley enlists the admiringly eager-to-please Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him ferret out the fiend from a field that includes higher-ups Ben Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik). Tom Hardy plays disillusioned and formerly AWOL agent Rikki Tarr, whose unexpected return sets things in motion.

The convoluted and codename-filled caper boils down to a whodunit in which the guilty party could be anyone, which makes it hard not to get impatient for the big reveal. Although the traitor’s identity, his motives and his explanations of how he covered his tracks turn out to be satisfying, the actor who plays him here doesn’t make the character as superciliously dismissive as the one who played him in the miniseries.

Oldman similarly is no Alec Guiness, although he portrays Smiley with rigidly unexcited reasonableness that fits the role. Unfortunately, that means Oldman doesn’t get to display any of the energy and occasional lunacy that were his stock in trade before his Jim Gordon and Sirius Black days. Somehow, it’s hard not to wish he would go on a contemptuous screaming jag, if just for old time’s sake.

The movie includes several flashbacks to a company party that’s not in the original novel and which seems a little off. There’s also a dialog glitch when Tarr anachronistically refers to “the mother of all secrets,” a very post-Cold War cliche that is not found in the book.

The screenplay by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan otherwise does a good job of condensing the material. The movie’s treatment of an early ambush scene is much more stylish and grim than the miniseries version. Ditto a scene in which the will of one of Smiley’s suspects is broken down on a remote airstrip with a plane waiting menacingly in the background, a scene that took place in a very non-threatening drawing room in the miniseries.

This is the first feature in English by director Tomas Alfredson, best known for helming the 2008 Swedish horror film Let the Right One In. Although Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy suffers in comparison to this year’s far superior other cold-war thriller The Debt, it’s still respectable enough to be worth a look.

[Rating: 3 stars]

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is released this Friday December 9, 2011. It has already been released in the UK back on September 16, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.