Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy full of dizzying intrigue

Espionage flick boasts the most colorful cast of British actors this side of Hogwarts

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, whether the new feature film or the 1979 BBC miniseries, unfolds with a deliberate pace that feels like an act of defiance. Both adaptations of John le Carré's best-seller about a retired spy's search for a highly placed double agent are the opposite of whatever fast-paced, cheerfully impossible spy film rules the box office. Just as the BBC miniseries felt like the antithesis of the late 1970s James Bond, the slow-burning new movie makes Jason Bourne and Ethan Hunt look like boys with toys and ADD.

In early 1970s London, middle-aged former spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) finds indications that one of his former colleagues in the leadership of British Intelligence might be a Russian mole. Smiley gathers a small team of allies, including his right-hand man Peter Guillam ("Sherlock's" Benedict Cumberbatch), to unravel the truth.

Tinker Tailor boasts the most colorful cast of British actors this side of Hogwarts, including Toby Jones and Colin Firth as high-ranking potential traitors, Tom Hardy as a pugnacious, untrustworthy source, and John Hurt, in flashbacks, as the Circus's ill-fated former director. Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) portrays "The Circus" (Smiley's nickname for British Intelligence, based in Piccadilly Circus) as a hidebound organization rife with paranoia and corruption. It's hard to tell whether the Circus or Margin Call's collapsing investment bank is 2011's most compromised institution.

It's fortunate that Tinker Tailor works so well as a mood piece, because the plot can be dizzyingly dense. Audiences may need to watch it once for its atmosphere and a second time to appreciate how all the pieces fit together, which is a lot to demand of a viewer. Oldman, in a similar, soft-spoken mode as his Commissioner Gordon performances, conveys Smiley as a dogged investigator despite his emotional desolation, a Cold Warrior as scarred on the inside as real veterans may be on the outside.