Forget everything you've learnt. Being a spy is not sexy. Exhibit A Yer Honour, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The ironically-monikered George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is stuffy and middle-aged. (NB: this is in the days when being in your fifties looked like being in your seventies.) At one point he unceremoniously removes his Walther PPK - that’s James Bond’s gun - not from a sleek shoulder holster but from a shabby plastic wallet just as he might his sandwiches. This, incidentally, is a rare occasion when we actually see some hardware.
It’s the early seventies. The Cold War is positively glacial and Smiley is tracking down a double agent in British intelligence. The action flows at glacial speed too. There is little made of actual operations. They are momentary but incendiary. The onus is on finding the Soviet mole in the “Circus” (The Secret Intelligence Service).
The performances and attention to period detail is the main charm. The production design is stunning, and all things sartorial – even the most staid – offer some kind of allure. Weirdly, the film manages to be attractive while simultaneously showing up the crappiness of seventies
and its Empire in serious decay. Smiley is a laconic sort and, as a result, Oldman delivers a potent, internalised performance. He is backed by a strong British cast – from relative newcomers (Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberpatch) to stalwarts (Mark Strong, Ciarin Hinds, Tobey Jones) to an Oscar-winner (Colin Firth) to a living legend (John Hurt). Unsurprisingly, the acting’s not bad. Britain
Smiley almost disappears within the large cast and fragmented story. Other than being King of the poker face we are given little indication of his strengths. It is not a character-driven story of Smiley but it’s neither a balls-to-the-wall spy flick. Instead, it occupies a vapid no-man’s land between the two. It is easy to be dazzled by such slick production value when the actual story is lifeless as this.