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Cold War shivers

Tense hunt for a mole in the 1970s spy game

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, of course, a spy movie, and so it is very much about secrets and lies, trust and betrayal, pacts and paranoia - the stuff of our everyday lives.

Directed by Tomas Alfredson - he of the aching and atmospheric Swedish vampire love story, Let the Right One In (the anti-Twilight) - his take on the John le Carré classic is concise, precise, and washed in a color palette that doesn't stray far from gray.

Just watching Gary Oldman and his trenchcoated brethren march down the damp, ill-lit streets of Cold War London is enough to make you shiver.

Oldman is George Smiley, the mild-mannered MI6 agent brought back from retirement to turn out a mole in the "Circus" - the in-house, in-joke name of the top-secret British agency. Someone is leaking vital information to the Soviets, someone high up in the tiers, and Smiley, calmly assessing the world through his thick-rimmed glasses, is the man to hunt him down.

For those of us who have grown accustomed to Oldman as a larger-than-life villain and all-round chewer of scenery, the pleasures to be had from this performance are many. The actor's Smiley is quiet, watchful, bureaucratic - as if he were hiding in plain sight, going unnoticed in the complicated whorl of international espionage all around him. Except that it is impossible not to notice him, because Oldman is doing the best work of his career.

Although there are side trips to Budapest (gray) and Istanbul (not quite as gray), much of the action (and I use the word loosely) in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy transpires in the file rooms and board rooms of the intelligence agency's HQ itself, or in a dank suite in a backstreet hotel where Smiley sets up his makeshift command center.

Oldman's castmates here are the crème de la crème of U.K. thespianism: Colin Firth as Bill Hadon, a bicycle-commuting top deputy; Ciarán Hinds, as Roy Bland, another upper-management MI6 chap; David Dencik as Toby Esterhase, likewise a possible suspect as the double agent. Also here are John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch (in this weekend's War Horse, as well, and here given the role of Smiley's aide) . . . it's a very male world, this 1970s spy game. In fact, Alfredson takes a subtle poke at this white-man's world, letting his camera pan down a London street where a graffito scrawl on a wall reads "The Future is Female."

Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does not have the luxury of time afforded to the 1979 British television mini-series, which starred Alec Guinness as Smiley and, at almost six hours, let us linger over the hugger-mugger, savoring details, diversions. It's a complicated story line, requiring utmost attention. (It's important, too, to take in the polite bits of conversation that appear rather meaningless, but, in fact, are loaded with import.)

But even if you get lost - in the spyspeak, in the codes, in the comings and goings of grim-faced men with satchels full of documents they should not have - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is worth getting lost in.

And remember, as they say in the movie, "This meeting never took place, do you understand?"EndText

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.