Although not without violence, the story is essentially a procedural in which, playing for grim stakes against a drab background of imperial decline, methodical Smiley must deal with degrees of betrayal and distinguish between shades of moral equivalence. Gary Oldman makes for a taciturn interrogator and robotically cool protagonist of deductive logic in this fluidly crafted movie adaptation of a 1974 spy novel by the same name.
London here is scarcely less shabby or conspiratorial than early '70s Budapest, where a botched British operation sets the narrative merry-go-round in motion. The MI6 is in disarray, and the discharged Smiley is metaphorically brought back from the dead to discover which one of his former colleagues is the "mole." As Smiley goes about securing files and interviewing witnesses, Alfredson establishes a universe of technologically primitive dial phones, teletype machines, and reel-to-reel tape recorders. If Smiley's secret agent is the anti-Bond, the retro Tinker, Tailor is sort of diminished, at times, dryly satiric. The movie returns repeatedly in flashback to the MI6 office Christmas party where Smiley becomes aware that his wife has betrayed him even while a Lenin-masked Santa leads the assembled spooks in an enthusiastic rendition of the Russian national anthem — in Russian (which, of course, they all know).
Tinker, Tailor is more explicit regarding various characters' sexual proclivities than was the miniseries that preceded it. It's also more concise, but what's lost is pathos. It's difficult these days to feature a movie hero who is not unequivocally victorious and perhaps even tougher, 22 years after cold-war victory, to evoke the psychology of that twilight struggle.