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Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Gary Oldman stars in John le Carré's Cold War drama

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Although the year of the setting is never identified, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looks circa 1980—a time when the Cold War was still accepted along with death and taxes as an inescapable characteristic of life on Earth. John le Carré's novel of espionage and treason was the basis for a much-loved BBC mini-series from that era, starring Alec Guinness as the weary counterintelligence officer George Smiley. In the new film, Gary Oldman fills the role with profound understanding for a life where nothing is ever as it seems and no one is entirely aboveboard.

Smiley has learned to move warily and with prudence through the many levels of secrecy and duplicity enveloping Britain's MI6, with its covert war with the KGB and intrigue with its “American cousins” in the CIA. Oldman plays him as a fastidious, buttoned-up man of quiet elegance as he steps from tightly curtained rooms into rainy London streets. He had been forced to retire from the agency under circumstances never explained, but he is coaxed back into service to determine whether the Soviet mastermind Karla has planted a mole at the center of British intelligence.

Except when drunk, which isn't often, Smiley is as tight-lipped as a sealed tin can and as unblinking as a mannequin. He works with unhurried determination, carefully sifting the evidence and following an elliptical trail of clues into the unlit labyrinth of Cold War intrigue. For Smiley, World War II seems elegiac—a time when battle lines were clearly drawn and objectives were always in sight. He labors silently under the realization that moral bankruptcy is at the bottom of his profession. Oldman heads a team of outstanding actors. John Hurt plays the enigmatic Control, the intelligence chief who suspects the Soviets have infiltrated his organization and trusts no one. Colin Firth drips irony and sarcasm as Bill Haydon, an officer at the heart of MI6. Pug-faced Toby Jones is Percy Alleline, the agent who runs a secret operation within a secret operation. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's previous effort, the vampire film Let the Right One In, may have schooled him in the moody atmospherics he weaves around Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Like vampires, the denizens of le Carré's world prefer to dwell in darkness rather than surface in the light of day.