Spy vs. Spy

Gary Oldman's George Smiley hunts for moles in a chilly adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
SUSPICION: George Smiley (Gary Oldman, standing) wonders who has betrayed the Circus—Haydon (Colin Firth, from left), Esterhase (David Dencik) or Alleline (Toby Jones). Photograph by Jack English

HABITS of secrecy, habits of arrogance, breed monstrous behavior in the stunning new version of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

The story unfolds in the early 1970s. The Cold War still has England frozen. The dome of St. Paul's is always rimed with frost. It's as if World War II had never stopped. The enemy never stopped listening. Neither did the supposed friends in government. The secret service is the most paranoid place in this war. And its denizens face unignorable news: A mole at the top level is pipelining secrets to the U.S.S.R.

Director Tomas Alfredson (of the original Let the Right One In) creates a thick impasto of early-1970s British despair, as compelling as an alternate universe. It's a reminder that Terry Gilliam's Brazil wasn't so much imagined as it was rotoscoped.

Alfredson studies human creepiness in the reflection of windows. These spies are men preserved in dirty vitrines, dripping in athletic club shower rooms or swimming in a crowded pond of cold water. We peek through the portals of cheap tourist hotels or attend meetings in a soundproof foam bunker of a queasy burnt orange.

Such is the world of George Smiley (Gary Oldman), the man once certainly next in line for the position of Control of the British Secret Service. But he and his boss (John Hurt) were forced to resign after a particularly bad fiasco in Budapest.

There, British agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) was shot in the back by the KGB. There was collateral damage, too; a civilian was killed. Civilians get killed nastily: sitting, nursing a baby or swaying and almost giggling from KGB truth serum. Alfredson's embellishments make Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy more than a deadly game of epigrams.

The director keeps the deepest cause of Smiley's solitude offcamera: his straying wife, Ann. (The penultimate shot in the fascinating 1979 BBC series with Alec Guinness gave us Ann taking in the sight of her strange and estranged husband: "Poor George. Life is such a puzzle to you, isn't it?") Alfredson doesn't show us Ann's face, although we see her body being fondled by another man at an office Christmas party.

The faces are otherwise memorable. The mole suspects include one of the most baleful actors alive, Ciarán Hinds as Roy Bland; Colin Firth as Bill Haydon, an icon of condescension; Toby Jones as the pompous mediocrity Percy Alleline; David Dencik as a downy Toby Esterhase, last seen wailing for his life on an airport tarmac; and Benedict Cumberbatch as the too-natty Peter Guillam (this new version gives Guillam a secret of his own). And out in the cold: the ominous Tom Hardy as Polyester-swathed legbreaker Ricki Tarr.

Oldman is startling, even after years of superb supporting work. If you recall his semiautobiographical film Nil by Mouth, you know that these Oxford-bred spies are not Oldman's class of people. Oldman takes a different angle on Smiley than Alec Guinness' sad portly vicar of an intelligencer, one of the many lonely hunters of the English detective story.

Oldman is less plummy. The sordid work of spying excites him internally—he has a fetishist's gleam—and his performance is dark and vivid, even if it's superficially quiet. His Smiley (naturally, not a smiler) is a man who radiates authority, even while fulfilling le Carré's description of someone who makes a room emptier every time he enters.

Those who love actors know that a silent man can be more urgent than a noisy, flamboyant type. And they can be more hilarious—as when Smiley tempts a former colleague with a fifth of Johnny Walker Red, wiggling the bottle slightly, like a fisherman twitching the bait. The chill comes later; this wasn't a friendly visit. A man like Smiley doesn't have friends.

Le Carré (who makes a cameo appearance) writes about master plots, but he's not always a master plotter. Some of the moves in this chess game are bewildering. The mystery is solved through hypothesis, interesting coincidence and informants turning up unexpectedly.

But Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy differs from the usual mystery. It's not one of those stories where a culprit gets caught but the society that gave him his chance to be a criminal gets away scot-free.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

R; 127 mins

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