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From Chelsea With Love

Tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-gary-oldman-john-hurt
Jack English/Studiocanal

Borrowing a page from Darren Aronofsky's book, Tomas Alfredson takes steps to ensure that the new version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" swims with visible grain. It's a fine piece of calculated shorthand and works wonders for the ambiance. Every time Gary Oldman as George Smiley speaks from the shadows, the audience peers at him through a fog of silver halide chemistry. When Sir Alec Guinness walked this way, he also frowned through the grain but had a cast-iron excuse: It was 1979, and film grain came naturally.

Both the seven-part BBC TV series and the original 400-page book were products of their day; and both are now stuck with looking like products of yesterday. If TV director John Irvin wanted to swamp the frame with authentic period feel, then all he had to do was open a window — a luxury Mr. Alfredson does not have. Many have detected a strong sense of the '70s from the new version, but the decade only presents itself in some shirt collars and a couple of boxy automobiles. Mr. Alfredson stages a nice opening sequence with the departing Control (John Hurt) walking through the offices and typing pools of the Circus after having been shown the door, but the new joint has none of the authentic dreariness of the previous version: There, the paint was clearly poisonous; the chairs had woodworm, and civil servants met in what looked like an upstairs cupboard at Foyles.

There isn't much period feel in the acting either, although that's harder to regret. The new Smiley is a fine piece of dedication by Mr. Oldman, who seems screwed down so tightly he could surely survive a direct hit from any assassin in the area. Much fun was had at Sir Alec's expense over the minimalism of his performance; but compared to Mr. Oldman, he was yodeling like Tarzan. Tom Hardy also gets to act up a storm as poor sap Ricky Tarr, led astray by a beautiful face. After a few years spent warming up, Mr. Hardy can now make the screen tremble at will; but like Mr. Oldman, he's a performer rooted solidly in the here and now.

Two crucial characters are not here or now. They're not anywhere. Doing without the omnipresent Karla — apart from a nanosecond in profile — does at least avoid a direct collision with memories of Patrick Stewart in the TV version. It also sets up the film's second-most cinematic moment, when Mr. Oldman recounts Smiley's meeting with the Russian spymaster direct to camera with no Karla in sight. (The most cinematic moment involves Benedict Cumberbatch and a George Formby song, and really does have a period feel.) But deciding to jettison the inconstant Ann Smiley as well means that Smiley's world has to do without both of its poles at the same time.

The marriage of George and Ann is at the very heart of the plot, since it's never far from the heart of the man. If it goes for nothing, then so does everything else. The new Ann is glimpsed only once, as a pair of shapely legs in the middle distance drifting out of focus. Three decades ago, Siân Phillips got to walk on for one scene and deliver the coup de grâce: "Poor George. Life is such a puzzle to you, isn't it?" Mr. Oldman's puzzlement at life looks skin-deep at best. Sir Alec's ran deeper; and when the old man tried to look his wife in the eye, the game was up. The new model Smiley gets off too lightly.

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