The story, based on a John le Carré novel, is complicated—condensed into 127 minutes. By comparison, a widely admired 1979 British production of the same story, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, ran 290 minutes. Too much is lost in cutting the story down to standard feature length for a U.S. film. Multiple characters are established and left with little to do. A murderer’s row of great actors—Firth, Jones, Hines—are mainly shown staring at Smiley and looking mildly suspicious. The story doles out dribs and drabs that make us more or less suspicious of the agents’ motives, without ever making us care much, one way or the other, about who the mole might be or how high the stakes are in rooting him out.

A slow pace is not inherently a bad thing for a film that draws us in and keeps us watching for clues to the unfolding story. Clues do emerge, slowly, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but with very little narrative momentum. There’s no sense of a building sense of drama that will lead to an emotionally satisfying resolution. For a tale about a net being drawn tighter around several characters, the narrative rarely feels like it’s growing more taut as the story heads toward its conclusion.

Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) does a nice job of creating the film’s cool mood and icy visual look of scenes bathed in green and beige. He also gets a performance out of Oldman that is better than the film itself. Wearing an expression that rarely changes, Smiley is able to discover the mole even in the midst of emotional trauma related to his marriage, letting the cracks show fleetingly while trying not to let his personal problems affect his mission. It’s another feather in Oldman’s cap, and a hopeful sign that any further films featuring the character of Smiley will be worth watching.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a noble effort that looks good on screen but leaves its interesting characters underdeveloped. A longer running time would have given the story room to breathe, and might have better fleshed out the dense material. Those interested in this story would be better served by returning to the 1979 version of the tale to supplement, or supplant, this new version of le Carré's story.


  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; “dam-,“ “dam-it,” “s-it,” multiple uses of the “f”-word.
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Several scenes of drinking and smoking; comment about how long it takes to get drunk.
  • Sex/Nudity: A boy and girl kiss; a man and woman have vigorous sex, but only seen from far away by a man looking through a telescope until he zooms in for a closer look (bare bottom seen); a naked man jumps out of bed, but his midsection is obscured; adults kiss passionately with a man groping a woman's buttocks; a man removes a woman’s underwear, but no breasts or genitalia shown; a man stands by a bathtub, his midsection covered by a long shirt; infidelity discovered and discussed; a homosexual relationship is alluded to; partially clothed exotic dancers are seen in the background during a club scene.
  • Violence/Crime: A man and woman holding an infant are shot; a bird is struck (offscreen) with a blunt object; a man assaults a co-worker; a man is tortured; a woman is shot; man shot in the face; bloodied corpses shown.

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