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Spies Like Them: 'Tinker, Tailor' And Other Odd Ilk

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Most people will find the first 20 minutes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy difficult to follow — I did, and I've read John le Carre's novel and seen the haunting 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness, although decades ago.

The movie is chopped up into short scenes featuring people we don't know working for a circus — what? — and for someone called "C," and talking about a woman called Karla? Meanwhile, the star, Gary Oldman, doesn't say a word for the first 18 minutes.

You have to infer that it's the early '70s, and the Cold War is going strong; that the Circus is MI6, the U.K.'s CIA; that C stands for "Control," the only name given for its mysterious chief; and that Karla isn't a woman but a Soviet spymaster, who has allegedly planted a mole in the Circus' upper echelon.

You have to think back to the days of double agents like Kim Philby, some of whom were actually triple agents or double-double agents, meaning they pretended to have turned against their country but were actually trading not-so-valuable intelligence for access to higher circles.

I was skeptical of the need for a new Tinker, Tailor, with the Cold War so long gone and the terrific original just out on DVD, and those first 20 minutes seemed to confirm all my doubts. But then the story took hold, and I was thrilled to pieces all over again.

Oldman is Circus agent George Smiley, who appeared in eight Le Carre novels and whom Guinness, I think, played definitively. He was naturally dry and furtive, whereas Oldman is a hot-dog whose reticence here is a kind of stunt. But I grew to love Oldman's Smiley. Behind that phlegmatic exterior are hard eyes that have seen — and even approved — too much torture and killing. He'll never be warm, never function fully as a human being. But he'll endeavor to be, in this twisted context, upright.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens with Control, played by John Hurt, directing an agent on a secret mission to Budapest to learn the name of the Circus traitor. The outcome is catastrophic, and soon Control and his top man, Smiley, are expelled. The Circus is now run by five men, the chief an officious Scotsman called Percy Alleline, played by Toby Jones. The other top agents are Colin Firth's Bill Haydon, David Dencik's Toby Esterhase, Ciaran Hinds' Roy Bland, and Stephen Graham's Jerry Westerby. One is a mole.

It's after Control's death that a minister's aide (Simon McBurney) summons Smiley back to duty, to see if Control ever mentioned his suspicions about a mole within the organization. Smiley says Control didn't.

The story that follows would be pretty dry were it not for a character named Ricki Tarr, a Circus agent and assassin who vanishes for months, then shows up in Smiley's house with a story about a woman who nearly told him the name of the mole — before she was captured by the Soviets. He loved her. He wants her back.

Tarr is played by Tom Hardy, a young Brit with huge lips and a plaintive, tortured beauty that makes him one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. Hardy immediately pulls you in, and so does the lovely young Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova, as the woman he can't protect.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is full of faces you'll love to study, like the one belonging to Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley's aide, with his hooded eyes and impossibly high cheekbones. John Hurt's chain-smoking Control is a human husk, as if his innards had been eaten away by paranoia and hatred. Then there's Colin Firth, who has stripped himself down to pure old-boy condescension. You think, "Who are these people?"

Le Carre's Circus might have gone with the Cold War, but the peculiar psychology of spies and spymasters seems endlessly contemporary. The Swedish director Tomas Alfredson also made the peerlessly creepy vampire movie Let the Right One In, and a case could be made that his characters here are like even creepier vampires, sacrificing innocents, preying on one another's doubts, forever afraid of the light.

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