John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 1974 spy novel generally regarded as the writer's finest, is predicated on a pair of enigmatic personalities: the colorless, bureaucratic master spook George Smiley and the double agent the Soviets have planted near the top of British intelligence, whom Smiley must unmask. Alec Guinness was a memorably gray-faced doughy protagonist in the 1979 Tinker, Tailor miniseries; Gary Oldman makes for an even more taciturn interrogator and robotically cool master of deductive logic in Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's brooding, fluidly crafted movie adaptation.
Best known for the bleak tween vampire drama Let the Right One In, Alfredson is strong on chilly atmospherics. Smiley's London is scarcely less shabby or conspiratorial than early-'70s Budapest, where a botched British operation sets the narrative merry-go-round in motion. The “circus” — le Carré's term for MI6 — is in disarray, and the discharged Smiley is metaphorically brought back from the dead to discover which one of his former colleagues is the “mole.”
As Smiley goes about securing files and interviewing witnesses, Alfredson establishes a universe of technologically primitive dial phones, teletype machines and reel-to-reel tape recorders.
The latest Tinker, Tailor is, in some ways, more explicit regarding various characters' sexual proclivities than was the miniseries. It's also more concise, but what's lost is Smiley's pathos. Oldman's Smiley is less agonized nerd than Asperger brainiac. I missed the final line, delivered in the miniseries by the faithless Mrs. Smiley: “Poor George. You don't know what life is about, do you?” —J. Hoberman (ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark)