'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' brought expertly to the screen

Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy,” from the well-known John LeCarre novel of the same name, features many memorable faces, but hinges on the near-inflexibility of one single face. 

Gary Oldman as the misnamed George Smiley, at the center of the hunt for a Soviet mole in 1970s British secret service circles, barely registers emotion in his earlier scenes. Or at least, he barely registers emotion from the forehead to the chin.

We take Oldman so much for granted, now, that it’s easy to forget how much telling detail he puts into a performance. I like the swimming scenes at Hampstead Ponds in North London, where Smiley, put out to pasture before his time, goes to swim every morning. His wife walked out on him and he seems to have no friends, not even his fellow swimmers.  His meticulous strokes bespeak his sense of order; strain in his neck to keep his eyeglassed head dry, subtly show his inner struggle.

Through flashbacks, we learn of the botched operation, which cost Smiley and his boss “Control” (John Hurt) their respective jobs in British Intelligence, known colloquially as “The Circus.”

As far back as “Alien” in 1979, John Hurt has looked sick and about to die. He doesn’t look any better 32 years later, but he’s learned to inhabit and even flourish within his stylish decay, like someone who knows he’s two minutes away from a fatal heart attack but gives out one more belly laugh exactly because of that. He isn’t in the film much, but he leaves you thinking about him more when he isn’t there.

Alfredson, who helmed “Let the Right One In,” one of the finest vampire movies in recent years, wisely gives his well-stocked cast room to move.  In a supporting part, Toby Jones seems perpetually jumpy until the ever-twisting plot pushes him to the brink and he suddenly flashes steely. Tom Hardy, with his wide set eyes and Jaggeresque lips, exudes a constant menace concealing his character’s deeper machinations.

Long, slow pans across the screen take in the characters as a whole, whether the setting’s a hidden spy hutch, a café table, or conference room in the bowels of the Circus.  Smart and sporting a maze of interlocking characters and plot points, “Tinker, Tailor” simultaneously looks back to the Cold War and reminds us that the most important wars, then as now, get fought with a mind at the ready and an ear metaphorically or otherwise, pressed to the wall.

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