So it turns out that working as a spy for MI6 is kind of a bummer. You thought it was going to be one long race around Monte Carlo in an Aston Martin, shooting tranquilizer darts from the side mirrors, wearing impeccably tailored British suits and making out with a rotating cast of no-strings honeys. But that is where the joke is on you, because the reality is that you'll be stuck in a drab office building under fluorescent lights poring over indecipherable messages on vintage reel-to-reel tape players because it's 1973 and there's no Internet to help you. You'll be allowed no personal life to speak of, your "friends" will be your co-workers and they'll be spies, too, which means they'll also eventually betray you or kill you or both at once. And when you die everybody will just rifle through your personal files before the morgue comes to pick up your still-half-warm corpse.
Welcome to the happiness-decimating world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the novel by John le Carré (which was also a hugely popular 1979 British miniseries starring Alec Guinness). This time around Gary Oldman plays the intelligence gathering expert George Smiley, forced into retirement and then secretly reinstated to find a Soviet mole at the top of the agency ("the circus," he calls it). It could be anybody close to Smiley, a cast that includes Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds. Or it could be Smiley. Or somebody else. It could be somebody in another movie, that's how impenetrable and withholding this mystery is.
So it's lucky for you, then, that you're just a spectator and not one of these guys, because within the first 10 minutes you'll realize that almost nobody on screen is going to wind up having a good go of it. Even luckier, you'll be in the presence of a rare mainstream movie: the kind that doesn't talk down to you. In fact, it expects you to keep up while it densely packs a lot of information into two hours. It's a convoluted, meticulously detailed puzzle and no one cares if you get lost along the dark, doomed path to learning the mole's identity. And you will get lost. And then the movie will toss in another bit of information 20 minutes later to help you get unlost. Oh wait, you weren't paying attention at that particular second? Too bad.
Did I just tell you how lucky you were? Well, it gets better. This extremely satisfying adaptation is from Let the Right One In's Tomas Alfredson. He's got a way with his cast, who knows what it is, probably some kind of Swedish actor-whisperer skill, that compels all of his heavy-hitters to aim for quiet, dead-on-the-inside subtlety instead of the Academy Award campaign. And under his direction (and the work of the production designers) you can feel every moment of unease, every little volt of tension, the creeping panic, the see-your-own-breath atmosphere, the soaking rain and the scratching polyester. So dress warmly when you go; if a movie could give you the flu, this is it.