It was fun watching Tom Cruise scale a Dubai high-rise in the latest "Mission: Impossible," but I'm pretty sure the life of a secret agent looks more like "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," a richly detailed adaptation of the cynical, sorrowful 1974 novel by former British intelligence officer David Cornwell, aka John le Carré. No high-tech bungee jumping here, just dueling bureaucracies and vaguely dissimilar ideologies -- and some of the steeliest assassins may be your own ladder-climbing colleagues.
The year is 1973, the Cold War has hardened to permafrost and office politics at Britain's MI6 -- "the circus," as it's unaffectionately called -- has truncated the long career of agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But the death of agency honcho Control (John Hurt) reveals that Soviet mastermind Karla (unseen, symbolically) has acquired a high-level British mole. Smiley is rehired to suss him out.
What follows is a tightly woven web of shoe-leather detective work, gentlemanly cloak-and-dagger and some brutally nasty business, but "Tinker, Tailor" is driven mainly by its characters, each concisely drawn and perfectly, often movingly, played. Oldman's Smiley is sublime, almost ghostly -- and more world-weary than Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries -- but other standouts include Tom Hardy as a low-level dirty worker, Colin Firth as a chummy golden boy and Mark Strong as a self-sacrificing field agent. Benedict Cumberbatch is very good as an intriguingly altered version of Smiley's younger protege, agent Peter Guillam.
The movie's handsome look -- all modernist offices and state-of-the-art tape decks -- has a certain retro appeal, but Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") infuses every scene with calm, muted menace. He also executes a masterful closing sequence that ties up nearly a dozen loose ends -- all without a word. "Tinker, Tailor" packs an unexpected emotional punch, a secret weapon most spy thrillers forget to hide up their sleeves.PLOT In 1973, a retired agent returns to MI6 to hunt down a highly-placed mole.
PLOT In 1973, a retired agent returns to MI6 to hunt down a highly placed mole. RATING R (violence, language, nudity)
PLAYING AT Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington
BOTTOM LINE A smart, cool, compelling spy-thriller with top-notch performances and a surprisingly powerful ending.