To answer the first and most important question...no, I have not read the book. It probably would have helped to negotiate the intricate plot and subtle nuances, but I just couldn't wait. I've been nervously, anxiously checking my Flixter app for the exact day this movie would come to Orlando.
This had fun written all over it. Let's start with the director, Tomas Alfredson. This is his first blockbuster film, but probably earned his wings with his lesser-known but most excellent Swedish version of "Let the Right One In". Throw that one on your Netflix Queue if you haven't already.
The actors. A whole stew of hotties that can act their little heads off. Gary Oldman, of course, who isn't prettied up here but that is beside the point. Even as greasy Sirius Black he was hot. Colin Firth - no words necessary. Tom Hardy, the man with the bod and lips. And a couple of fairly unknown actors that have something special...Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. If you see the movie, just trust me and keep your eye on these two. Call me superficial, but I'd have been plenty happy if they'd all just stood up there on the screen and smiled, danced a two-step and read the phonebook.
But they didn't. They all played an important part in executing an extremely smart movie about espionage, skullduggery, murder and mayhem in the Cold War. (The key word here is "smart". I love a good, twisty plot that challenges my brain cells, but unless you have read the book, this is going to feel like a two- or three-time rewatch kind of movie to really GET it.)
The most important thing to know is this. Some British Intelligence spy business has gone very wrong in Budapest, and one of their own is taken down. The head of the BI, Control (John Hurt) suspects there is a mole within the four members of the upper echelon of the organization. Control retires, and forces his best agent, Smiley, (Gary Oldman) to step down with him. The government asks Smiley to try to quietly determine who of the four individuals is the secret Soviet spy.
From there it gets a little convoluted. My advice is just to go with it. Get the important facts straight in your head, and save the details for a later viewing. The ultimate evil-doer will be made clear in the end. Then go read a detailed summary, read the book, whatever, and watch it again.
The pacing was fast and sharp - never a dull moment. The acting is superb. It was almost overwhelming to have so much talent in one place. I think what I loved most was the way it ended...with a rendition of the French song "La Mer" performed by Julio Iglesias, playing while a whole string of powerful events take place. No dialogue, just violence, heartbreak, and bittersweet triumph while this gorgeous, groovy song is playing. Wow.