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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy:

imageJames Bond has a licence to kill. Jason Bourne has his amnesia. And Austin Powers… well, he has really dodgy teeth. Yet when it comes to George Smiley, the nondescript, withdrawn and unprepossessing hero of John le Carré’s spy fiction, there’s really just the one thing that defines him – the thick-rimmed, chunky set of spectacles that make him look more of a mole than any of the KGB infiltrators it is his job and sworn duty to uncover.

For many, those glasses will always perch on the nose of Alec Guinness, so indelible was his portrayal of Smiley in the BBC’s 1979 adaptation of le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Thanks to Tomas Alfredson’s gripping new film version of the author’s 1974 novel, though, there’s a new Smiley in town – and his name is Gary Oldman.

After years of lucrative cameos in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the Harry Potter series and forgettable trash like Red Riding Hood, it can be easy to forget that Oldman was once one of Britain’s brightest acting talents. For those who still look back fondly on his performances in the likes of Prick Up Your Ears, Sid And Nancy and TV’s The Firm, however, Tinker will be a triumphant vindication that their faith in him, if tested at times, was not misplaced.

For an actor best known for playing extravagant, unhinged bad guys in films like The Fifth Element, True Romance and Leon, it’s quite a revelation to see him as watchful, quiet and reined-in as he is here. Behind those specs, though, you can see the cogs in motion as he doggedly sets out to expose the Russian spy who has burrowed his way into the heart of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service and is now disclosing sensitive, classified information to his cronies behind the Iron Curtain.

Before he was booted out of the service in the wake of a botched operation that ended with one of his men (Mark Strong) in enemy hands, Smiley’s former boss (John Hurt) had narrowed the search down to five suspects. It’s up to George to sift through all the evidence, examine the clues and corner his quarry, a hunt that involves a multitude of flashbacks, some clandestine subterfuge involving his own inside man (Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch) and an awful lot of complex, talky scenes that require you to pay close attention at all times.

Some may find it all too convoluted and labyrinthine, with too many competing plot strands and a surfeit of British character actors playing characters who, as a result of their profession, are largely cryptic ciphers. (Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Toby Jones are just some of the names involved; there is also a welcome appearance from Kathy Burke in one of just two female roles.) Stick with it, though, and you’ll find it one of the most compelling thrillers you’ll see this year: a brilliantly plotted, superbly acted Cold War yarn that’s well worth raising your glasses to.

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