Anyone old enough to remember scurrying home from work in 1979 to catch the BBC's superb miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might be forgiven for sniffing at the prospect of a new big-screen take on John le Carre's finest espionage novel. Le Carre's labyrinthine plotting and densely written, dialogue-heavy characters lend themselves more readily to episodic television than to a splashy Hollywood movie beamed at post-boomers who barely remember the Cold War -- let alone Alec Guinness, who immortalized George Smiley as the most powerfully self-effacing spy ever to have shuffled down a sidewalk bearing a battered briefcase.
But beyond the use of younger actors, Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (who made the acclaimed 2008 vampire horror flick Let the Right One In) seems to care little for target demographics. He's made exactly the post-World War II period thriller he wanted to make -- and if it hasn't made le Carre (who served as executive producer) ecstatic, I'd like to know the reason why.
For starters, Alfredson has coaxed out of Gary Oldman a restraint I'd have thought was beyond the actor who brought us Sid Vicious, Sirius Black, Mason Verger and -- earlier this year in the wretched Red Riding Hood — some crazed dude in a purple cassock.
As Smiley, a senior MI6 operative brought out of retirement to hunt down a high-level mole who's feeding British intelligence to the Soviets, Oldman doesn't try to ape Guinness, or to top him. His spymaster has a whey-faced impassivity all his own; this is an inscrutable company man who's as quietly authoritative on the job as he is utterly adrift in his personal life, where he's serially cuckolded by a feckless wife whose face we never see.
Anonymous in an elderly brown raincoat, Smiley peers owlishly at the major suspects, every one of them damaged goods like himself, at home only in the warped missions they carry out in the name of patriotic duty -- or treachery. Tinker, Tailor has a glittering ensemble that includes Colin Firth as the smirking, debonair colleague who covets Smiley's wife, and Toby Jones as Percy Alleline, the blustering aspirant to the MI6 throne after the death of Control. As the latter — who falls on his sword following a botched operation in Hungary that endangers key agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) -- John Hurt is a soused ruin. And Kathy Burke is terrific as Connie, the Circus' only female top player, also forcibly retired and living off the past.
You'll need all your wits to tag along as the mushrooming plots of Tinker, Tailor loop gracefully back on themselves, carrying us to seedy corners of Budapest, Istanbul and Paris to follow a rogue operative (the ineffably sexy Tom Hardy, next to whom even Firth looks like a comfy old sweater) who threatens to derail a delicate three-way intelligence operation between the Brits, the Americans and Smiley's longtime Russian nemesis, Karla.
The screenplay, by Peter Straughan and his late wife, Bridget O'Connor, is debonair. Alfredson's mastery of tone and ambiance is flawless. The bloodletting is brief and necessarily appalling, the comedy mordant: I guarantee you will never sing along to "Mr. Woo" in quite the same way again.
Endearingly, Alfredson delights in the clubby in-house argot and the lumbering mechanics of pre-electronic espionage, with its rumpled agents hunched in phone booths, its encryption machines furiously hammering out coded messages both true and false.
Yet there's nothing self-consciously post-modern about Tinker, Tailor. Alfredson offers no concessions to hindsight, no lessons for today. Instead, he's kept faith with le Carre's bleak, romantically elegiac vision of a moment in 20th century history at once glorious and doomed. For the obsessives in this arcane, self-perpetuating, self-defeating world, duty (or its dereliction) comes first, and a Christmas office party means Santa in a Lenin mask and the singing of a Russian anthem.
What makes Smiley so dour, other than all he has seen of human capacity (his own included) for good and evil? Perhaps he can see that behind his generation lies a world war whose terrors can only be remembered through a thick coating of nostalgia, while ahead there is the faint roar of the Berlin Wall falling, and the extinction of his reason for being. Or not. (Recommended) Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.