“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” despite being a movie about spies, doesn’t rely on loud explosions or buckets of fake blood. Instead, the film is built on intense bits of dialogue and stealthy exchanges between actors and the camera to create an atmosphere of suspense and fear.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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Focus Features

Set during the Cold War period, the movie revolves around George Smiley (Gary Oldman, “Red Riding Hood”), dragged out of retirement to hunt down a mole hiding in the top tiers of British intelligence. Smiley weaves himself into the web of secrets and lies, entering a world in which everyone wears two faces.

The story is complicated and full of twists. The general flow of the narrative also relies on camera shots of small details like the arrangements of chess pieces or picking out a face in a photograph. It’s a story that requires a lot of patience and attention.

Nevertheless, the movie is beautifully crafted and evokes its chosen era seamlessly. The Cold War was a period of fear and uncertainty, of internal struggle and mistrust of basic instincts. Instead of relying on tropes like old news footage to emphasize the atmosphere or provide a sense of historical background, director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) merges the plot with its Soviet-era context. The costumes, the setting and even the characters emit a tense, frozen sensibility.

Oldman in particular manages to encapsulate this complex conflict within his character. His eyes, magnified by his large glasses, convey exactly how sharply his mind works. However, the intelligence with which he approaches his job is undermined by his drab appearance — a reminder that the best spies are not necessarily the ones with the flashy gadgets and fancy cars but rather the ones most easily forgotten.

In some respects, Smiley’s anonymity and the faceless enemy whose steps he traces provoke a striking and more disturbing form of violence than the traditional shoot-out scenes in spy movies. When someone is killed, there’s no fight or struggle. Importantly, this means there is no clear distinction between good and evil, no identifiable villain. Each side is just as bad as the other, leaving behind their own share of carnage.

Though violent and in some respects disturbing, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is, at least cinematographically, a beautiful movie. A scene with a reflection in a black-marble desktop stands out, hinting at duality and the falseness of perception. And yet the beautiful, stilled appearances serve as reminders that the world is unstable, that just because something is seen does not make it true.

Above all, the film builds up a fear of the unknown, or rather, causes that kind of innate fear to surface in the film’s characters and in the audience. The story is told masterfully but is full of small details. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not meant to entertain, but to unsettle.

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