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On Movies: Smiley's world, dark, cold, redolent of tweed

'I've been waiting 25 years to plays this part," Gary Oldman says of George Smiley, the tamped-down British secret agent who emerges from retirement to root out a mole in the John le Carré classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

'I've been waiting 25 years to plays this part," Gary Oldman says of George Smiley, the tamped-down British secret agent who emerges from retirement to root out a mole in the John le Carré classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

But Oldman, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the brilliant, and brilliantly inscrutable Smiley in the just-released adaptation, is not just referring to the character - he's talking about the character type, too. After years of outsized roles as villainous nutjobs and larger-than-life figures (The Fifth Element, The Professional, Dracula), the English actor finally gets to play someone reflective, reserved.

"I think of a soft pedal on the piano," Oldman explains, on the phone from New York. "George Smiley is pianissimo, and a lot of the characters I've played are fortissimo . . . .

"It's an interesting exercise, really, to play a character who motors the movie, who drives the thing, but yet from a very passive, very restrained and quiet position, rather than some of the characters I've played where they tend to physicalize their emotions . . . . They're bigger than life, they're almost like cartoon characters. So this one is very much reality-based. It required a different set of skills."

Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the Swede responsible for the haunting Let the Right One In vampire picture, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - which is now at the Ritz East and Rave Motion Pictures at the Ritz Center/NJ - is a complicated tale of Cold War espionage. The atmosphere is similarly cold - and gloomy and dark.

"It's grays and browns and oranges and nicotines and cold tea," Oldman says. "Tomas and his director of photography, Hoyte Van Hoytema, discussed the look of the movie, of course, but funnily enough they spent more time discussing its smells. Tomas said he wanted to capture the essence of damp tweed."

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also stars Colin Firth, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Ciarán Hinds - a daunting lineup of British stage and screen talents. They shot in London, and they had the privilege - and the pressure - of having le Carré himself on the set.

"We had his blessings," Oldman says of Smiley's creator. "There have been other films made from his books, and there are a few of them he doesn't like - and he's not shy in coming forward . . . he's very forthright. But he thought that the adaptation of this was fantastic."

It has been suggested that there's more than a trace of autobiography in le Carré's Smiley; the bestselling author, whose real name is David John Cornwell, was himself in the employ of Britain's intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6.

Was le Carré Smileyesque? Did Oldman study him, looking for ways into the role?

"Not necessarily the Smiley I ended up with, where I got to," Oldman answers. "He's a bit of a raconteur, John. And he is a person, I think, who walks into a room and it lights up - and George Smiley is the opposite of that. But there were little vocal mannerisms and things that I latched onto, that I used as a sort of beginning, a springboard.

"You know, you start by doing an impersonation. And in a very crude way, I could say that, well, I started with John le Carré, and then moved away from that as the character came together. But he's the bones and the marrow and the sinews and the muscles and the DNA of the piece."

Artist behind "The Artist." When French writer/director Michel Hazanavicius set out to make a black-and-white silent film - in the style of the 1920s Hollywood silents, no less - he already was schooled on many of the classics - on F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, on Fritz Lang's Spies, on Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd.

But then he and his partner, the actress Bérénice Bejo, started frequenting the Paris Cinematheque to dive deeper into the Silent Era. They started reading books about the great producers, directors, and stars of the day.

"When you live with someone, you share a lot of things," says Hazanavicius, whose Oscar-bound The Artist opened Friday at the Ritz Five, Ambler Theater, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and Rave Motion Pictures at the Ritz Center/NJ.

"And if you want to make a satisfactory movie, there's an immersion process, and Bérénice shared that immersion process with me - the research, the films . . . . And I was listening to music from that era, jazz from the '20s, but also the Hollywood classical scores of the '30s, the '40s, so she listened to the music. She took the immersion course, too. We did it together."

In The Artist, Bejo is a wide-eyed ingenue who dreams of making it big in Hollywood, and whose dream comes true, as she meets the Douglas Fairbanks-like screen star played by Jean Dujardin. He's the king of the silents, but as her career takes off, his begins to nosedive. It's the late 1920s, and Hollywood has discovered the talkies.

Dujardin's George Valentin is convinced, alas, that sound pictures are a fad. Before too long, he's out of his mansion and living in a spare little flat. Just him, his self-pity, and a faithful Jack Russell, Uggie.

As for that terrier, Hazanavicius says that he didn't realize how important the dog was to the story until he saw audience's reactions to the film.

"If you look at the character of George Valentin, the main character, he's not so sympathetic," Hazanavicius explains, on the phone from Los Angeles recently. "He's selfish, he's egocentric, he's proud, he's unfaithful to his wife . . . .

"But the fact that he has a dog who loves him, and who will always follow him, makes him human. Because you trust the dog, and you trust the instinct of the dog. You're thinking, if this dog loves him he has to be a good person!"

The Artist premiered at Cannes in May, and the response there - and since, at film festivals, and from critics groups - has been extraordinary. Even Hazanavicius was unprepared.

"I don't want to fake modesty," he says. "Of course I hoped that people would approve, because I make movies to seduce people. So, I wouldn't say, 'Wow, I was so surprised people enjoyed my movie.' I worked hard for them to enjoy the movie - that was the goal.

"But I was very surprised by the strength of the response, and by the fact that almost everyone loved the movie. It's very rare. Usually you think, OK, some people will love it, some people will like it, but some others won't care about it all. So I was surprised by the unanimity of the enthusiasm. At Cannes, people applauded for an eternity, it was never-ending. I think they applauded for 12 minutes after the end of the movie. . . . It's not natural to be in that kind of situation!"