Originally published December 22, 2011 at 3:00 PM | Page modified December 23, 2011 at 1:56 PM

Movie review

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' dark and alluring

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," based on the 1974 novel by John le Carré, can be a bit confusing if you've never read the book, but this dark and alluring film offers pleasures that go far beyond who-said-what-to-whom, according to Seattle Times film critic Moira Macdonald. Directed by Tomas Alfredson and starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Kathy Burke and others, the film is playing at several Seattle theaters.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,' with Gary Oldman, Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Svetlana Khodchenkova. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, from a screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré. 130 minutes. Rated R for violence, some sexuality/nudity and language. Several theaters.

Trailer: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

quotes Whew! This is one of my favorite spy stories, as well as mini-series. I'm glad they... Read more
quotes Thanks for the review Moiro. This is on my list. I had to look up the director, Tomas... Read more
quotes Moira. I know. Read more


Tomas Alfredson's alluring "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" has a murkiness to it that perfectly fits a spy film; you need to pay attention, or the story will slip away into the shadows.

Based on John le Carré's blockbuster 1974 novel (previously filmed as a multi- episode miniseries for the BBC in 1979, starring Alec Guinness), the film efficiently trims a labyrinthine story down to just over two hours; those not already familiar with the plot and its use of multiple flashbacks may find themselves scrambling to catch up. But it's refreshing to encounter a film that doesn't talk down to its audience, and its pleasures go far beyond who-said-what-to-whom-when.

I first watched the movie without reading the book and enjoyed the plot twists, even as I found much of it confusing. Then I read the book, and it all made sense. But if I'd read the book first, I'd have anticipated many of the movie's surprises, so I'm not necessarily recommending that those unfamiliar with the book read it before seeing the movie. One non-spoiler tip, though, for anyone puzzled by the movie's flashbacks: Watch Smiley's glasses. He gets a new pair in the beginning of the film, so you can identify flashbacks — which aren't otherwise called out with dates or any other helpful identifiers — by which glasses he's wearing.

Smiley is, of course, George Smiley, one of fiction's most famous spies, and played here with an uncanny stillness by Gary Oldman. Previously forced out of the Circus (le Carré's code name for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service), Smiley is called back for a new secret mission: to identify a mole working for Russia in the home office. Smiley learns that his former boss, Control (John Hurt), had been investigating the case, and had narrowed it down to five suspects and colleagues code-named Tinker (Toby Jones), Tailor (Colin Firth), Soldier (Ciarán Hinds), Poor Man (David Dencik) — and Smiley himself, the Spy.

Shot in a London in which everything seems to be muddy brown or gray, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" unfolds like a chess game: indeed, one of its many striking images is a set of chess pieces, with photos of suspects inexpertly taped to them.

The film emerges as an unlikely star turn for Oldman, who lets us see Smiley ever-thinking, and whose face with its owlish glasses becomes the movie's still point. (He even swims with those glasses on.) Secrets and regrets elegantly hang over this story and these performances, like a London fog. "Beware of head entrapment," warns a sign at Circus headquarters, on the split-door elevator; it's a fair warning for a film that stays with you long after it's over.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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