To submit to the rambling, shamelessly atmospheric Cold War skullduggery yarn of this adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1974 novel is to willingly submit to a labyrinth that can be alternately gripping and soporific. Quite unlike the taut, tightening-knot–style suspense-film dynamics of equivalent American films or the action-coated cheekiness of the James Bond franchise, this British film prefers to mull over implied questions in the carefully obfuscated plot. To wit: Is there, in fact, a Russian-connected “mole” in the British spy organization known as “The Circus”? Did the operative killed in Hungary before the film’s opening credits actually die, and what is his relation to the “mole” in question? And who made Gary Oldman’s hairpieces?
Over the course of the film, we’re led through the lives of multiple characters and possible betrayals and double-reversals. In essence, it’s a dizzying maze of information and connections, a condensation of the lengthy novel, which translates onscreen into a plot too thick for its own good. Oldman’s central character (and star of a Le Carré trilogy), George Smiley, is a blank-slate-ish chap, disinclined to smile or get animated, regardless of the situation at hand. He is the story’s anchor and main protagonist in the investigation in which British Intelligence, Cold War angst, and sexual sneaks (involving the sneaky Colin Firth) intersect. To the film’s credit, there is no lack of period-piece kitsch here to keep us interested on an extra-espionage level, with loving shots of pre-digital gadgetry and the regalia of early ’70s era fashion plating.
It has been said that Le Carré’s books should be read two or three times in order to decipher the tangled narrative plotting within. A similar watch-ponder-repeat approach might be required for the filmed Tinker, but after being duly lulled and dulled by the film’s meandering byways and overly protracted duration, you may instead opt for the “Why bother?” response.