March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Tricky 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' revives a Cold War classic

If you were mystified by “Memento” and driven to distraction by the mind games of “Inception,” just wait until you try to sort out “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” director Tomas Alfredson’s devilishly perplexing adaptation of John Le Carre's Cold War classic. It’s a movie that ought to come with its own flow charts. And perhaps a few prerequisite classes. And heck, why not a Secret Decoder Ring as well?
Those unfamiliar with the 1974 novel are likely to lose their way shortly after entering
Le Carre's labyrinth of espionage, assassinations, brainwashings and potentially treacherous types. But maybe that was precisely what Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan had in mind. After all, “Tinker,” set during a time when tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were still high and inside information was very valuable indeed, tosses its characters into a maelstrom of mystery, in which everyone fights to keep his head above water and to stay one step ahead of unseen adversaries. If the men of MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence office) don’t know exactly what’s going on, whom to trust and whom to trap, why should the audience?
Even if you can’t always understand everyone’s agenda or allegiance, it’s possible to enjoy “Tinker” as a sturdy showcase for some top-notch talent, including a sublimely subdued Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the one-time Deputy Head of the Service, who is brought back into the fold to find a “mole” who’s slipping secrets to the Soviets. Although Oldman can be as flamboyant as Carmen Miranda when he wants to be — see his outlandish performance in last year’s “Red Riding Hood” for proof of that — he’s much more impressive when he turns that energy inward. Smiley is generally quiet and seemingly impassive, but it’s easy to hear the wheels turning in his mind as he returns to his old stomping grounds: He is a cobra, moving in silence and stealthily seeking out his prey.
He’s contrasted with the more anxious Control, Smiley’s former boss, who fell from grace shortly after a mission in Budapest went haywire. Played with acidic relish by John Hurt, Control now exists in the shadowy edges of the MI6 landscape, often peering out from behind the smoke from his constant stream of cigarettes as if hiding behind some sort of carcinogenic curtain.
Other noteworthy players in this extremely tricky game include the snappish, sharp-eyed Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), a youthful but quick-witted Peter Gullam (rising star Benedict Cumberbatch of BBC’s “Sherlock”) and Ricki Tarr (a blond Tom Hardy), an undercover agent on the run, whose dalliance with a lovely Soviet officer’s wife has predictably deadly repercussions.
Alfredson, director of the acclaimed Swedish vampire shocker “Let the Right One In,” orchestrates the moves extraordinarily well, so that even if the plot becomes indecipherable you can still appreciate the unsettling, beautifully modulated atmosphere, in which practically every room is slightly underlit and ominous shadows often collect in the corners. This is not a James Bond adventure, full of luscious locations, mind-blowing gadgetry and romance-ready babes: It’s a cold world, populated primarily by cold-blooded people ready to put each other on ice at a moment’s notice.