Chess in the Dark 

Gary Oldman drives a complicated but first-class spy thriller.

Gary Oldman as John le Carre's spymaster Smiley

Gary Oldman as John le Carre's spymaster Smiley

Okay, prepare yourself for some hyperbolic language.

I am an inveterate George Smiley devotee. The character is the creation of British novelist John le Carré, a great living author who, with his immensely precise language and clean writing, is underappreciated because he writes genre fiction. His works, most of them dramatic spy thrillers, include The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, and The Russia House, to name some of the ones that have been made into movies.

Smiley burns like a hot wire through a number of le Carré tomes, the character finding his apex in the 1970s trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy (the best spy novel ever), and Smiley's People. The first and last of these were brilliantly adapted by the BBC, with Alec Guinness starring as Smiley.

Now, Tomas Alfredson (of the great Let the Right One In) has tried his hand at le Carré with the new adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. His film is maybe the best and certainly the purest spy film ever made. (FYI, in my mind James Bond movies aren't spy movies. They're James Bond movies.)

Gary Oldman (his best, most understated performance) stars as Smiley, a veteran spymaster at "The Circus" — England's secret intelligence service, MI6. Following a botched operation in Hungary, where agent Jim Prideaux (the fabulous Mark Strong) is shot, the head of the Circus, codenamed Control (John Hurt), and his right-hand, Smiley, are sacked. The new regime includes the inner circle that Smiley once was a part of: Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).

A field agent, Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), comes forward with the information that there is a Soviet mole in the upper echelon of the Circus — a double agent who is feeding secrets to the Russians. Control had suspected this and was investigating it when he was ousted.

Circumventing the Circus hierarchy, a British minister (Simon McBurney) brings Smiley out of retirement to finish Control's investigation — he had narrowed the suspects down to one of the four men who now run the Circus. Smiley must uncover the mole without being discovered himself. He uses Tarr and another trusted man on the inside of the Circus, Peter Guillam (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch). Smiley also knows there's an even greater adversary with skin in the game: the Russian spymaster Karla, his counterpart in Moscow.

Alfredson has complete mastery of this material. His Tinker Tailor unfolds like a high-stakes chess match played in the dark: You can't see all of the pieces but it doesn't mean they're not there, and when they're revealed, slowly and one at a time, their place on the board holds great meaning. One hopes Alfredson and the relevant cast return for The Honourable Schoolboy. The story has just begun: The rooks have been turned out, but the king remains hidden.

Tinker Tailor is set in the early '70s, and Alfredson brings great period atmosphere to the film, as he did in the early-'80s-set Let the Right One In. The intelligence organizational apparatus is a bureaucracy, ugly and cruel and driven by individuals with more and less honorable motives and intelligence. Paranoia, frustration, and jealousy stalk each agent, not to mention the threat of the Russians.

An important caveat: I watched the film with two well-seasoned filmgoers, and they each wrestled a bit keeping up with the characters, the chronological adjustments, and plot intricacies. Tinker Tailor may be best suited for inveterate Smiley devotees. If you're not already, you should become one.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Opening Friday, January 6th

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Rated R · 127 min. · 2011
Official Site:
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Writer: Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan
Producer: Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner
Cast: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Graham, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Simon McBurney, Konstantin Khabenskiy and Laura Carmichael

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