The Cold War is over, but director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and his collaborators have brought those suspicion-fuelled days to vivid life in this masterful adaptation of John le Carré’s beloved 1974 spy novel. Unless you’re familiar with the source material, which previously inspired a seven-episode TV version starring Alec Guinness, it’s likely you’ll feel a bit lost on first view: characters spout insider-espionage jargon (Karla, Witchcraft, Scalphunters) with world-weary casualness, and flashbacks to seemingly inscrutable events are prevalent. Here’s all you need to know: there’s a Soviet operative in the British secret service, and forcibly retired MI6 man George Smiley (Oldman, perfection) has to find out who it is.
Now immerse yourself in the world Alfredson creates: a paranoiac’s nightmare of cautiously opened doors, enigmatic glances and soundproofed rooms inhabited by men in suits with shady motives. (The film is extraordinarily photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema.) At the centre of it all is Smiley, practically a caricature with his oversize glasses and somnolently polite demeanor, but possessed of a scarily patient intelligence – a bespectacled predator waiting for just the right moment to pounce. Alfredson shares the character’s confident composure, allowing the narrative to unfold with trancelike precision and finding piercing moments of pitch-black humour – the best involves an under-the-eye gunshot wound that oozes like a bloody tear duct – which augment and deepen a movie that’s already several cuts above the secret-agent cinema standard.