If the exact number of gunshots fired in every spy movie ever made were counted, along with car chases, daring motorcycle escapes and ballroom punch-ups - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would probably place last on all counts. The thriller makes little attempt to compete with the likes of Bond, Bourne or Mission: Impossible for glamour, or showy set pieces. Instead, it offers an embarrassment of British acting talent, incredible dramatic tension and what could be the most accurate depiction of Cold War espionage ever set to screen.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by John le Carré - himself a veteran of British intelligence - the film deals with not just the corrosive atmosphere of mistrust, but also the gloom and drudgery of the 1970s spy game. The nicotine-stained era is masterfully recreated by the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, whose 2008 film Let The Right One In was a refreshingly bleak and nuanced twist on the vampire genre.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy stars Gary Oldman as the reserved and meticulous agent George Smiley, a role made famous by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC mini-series. Brought out of retirement by a government official, he learns that there is "a mole ... right at the top of the circus" - spook-speak for a Soviet double agent, embedded in a senior position in the British secret service.
Smiley begins to investigate four men: the new chief of the circus Alleline (Toby Jones), his deputy Haydon (Colin Firth), as well as their close allies Bland (Ciarán Hinds) and Estherhase (David Dencik). Meanwhile, a missing field agent (Tom Hardy) who was apparently responsible for learning about the mole in the first place but believed to have defected in Istanbul, arrives in London seeking Smiley's protection.
Like a high-stakes game of chess, long periods of quiet are broken with moves that seem subtle at first, but are revealed to have enormous consequences. As the men sit in their soundproofed conference room, we are forced to inspect every facial expression they make and ponder every word uttered. The toxic environment created by le Carré and Alfredson is the perfect arena for such a gladiatorial acting display.
When the pieces finally come together, the big reveal is as understated as one would expect from this story - something that may cause frustration for those who have worked overtime to keep up with the intricate plot. What's more, the film, with its melancholic, greying protagonist, has a somewhat cold and impersonal feel. But although there are in fact plenty of narrative rewards to be discovered in this thoroughly convincing depiction of Cold War espionage, the film's greatest achievement is its performances. Oldman is so restrained he practically whispers his lines, yet the effect can be as devastating as his most bombastic turns. Likewise the recent Oscar-winner Firth, who has moved from depicting a succession of cads to a series of far more sympathetic characters in recent years, here plays a man whose motivations are anyone's guess. When you have all that, who needs car chases?