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One of the many delightful things about the world of John le Carré’s fiction is that his superspies often resemble the nattering members of some great English department. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for example, is mainly about a tubby and washed-up former spy who learns a great deal about the secret service by reading old files in a fleabag called the Hotel Islay. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, this approach was a conscious reaction to the fictional offerings of Ian Fleming; John le Carré wouldn’t be caught dead in a trick tuxedo, and neither would George Smiley.

In the new film, Gary Oldman plays Smiley, a lapsed but brilliant spymaster coaxed out of retirement to hunt down a mole at the heart of the British secret service. For his lieutenant, Smiley recruits Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), a loyal and smooth-talking intelligence officer who helps unravel the machinations of Smiley’s Soviet counterpart, a hazy figure named Karla. Along the way, we are treated to flashbacks of Control, the former head of British intelligence (John Hurt, in an inspired bit of casting), and we discover that Smiley’s estranged wife may have been getting busy with his colleague Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). Actually, there’s an awful lot more plot than that, but director Tomas Alfredson clearly appreciates the virtue of elision, so let’s just say that one of Her Majesty’s Finest has committed the ultimate act of betrayal, and that no one emerges from Smiley’s investigation unblemished.

Le Carré, having done a fair bit of intelligence work himself, understands that there are many versions of any given truth, so let’s assume that he’s more or less cool with the fruitful liberties Alfredson has taken with Tinker Tailor. (Le Carré is listed as an executive producer.) After all, even the purists at the BBC had to abridge certain portions of le Carré’s dense narrative—a dead-letter drop here, a Czech-immigrant subplot there—in the iconic six-plus-hour 1979 adaptation. A two-hour film, then, has an even steeper task. Alfredson solves the compression problem in a rather brilliant way: by rendering excised plot as heavy atmosphere. Instead of umpteen internal monologues about Ann Smiley’s libido, Alfredson shows us Bill Haydon’s hand on her ass at the MI-6 Christmas party (a new and very funny scene) and then lets Oldman’s face do the rest of the work. (That Ann, like Karla, remains literally faceless in the film is likewise deft.)

Chief among Smiley’s weapons, as a spy and as a character, is a preternatural English reserve, and it is this sensibility of muted ruthlessness that guides the movie: It is shorter and less full of speech, just as Gary Oldman is slimmer and tidier than Alec Guinness. It’s also something of a technical marvel—every shot tells, and the sound direction is eerie. At the same time, Alfredson’s cold-eyed approach mutes the semi-Dickensian richness of the original, as the secondary members of a strong ensemble get less screentime than we might wish; this is especially true of Ciarán Hinds as Roy Bland.

Those quibbles dissipate for the most part in the stellar final sequence, as an upbeat rendition of Charles Trénet’s “La Mer” plays under a montage tying together various loose ends. There’s a bloody moment here, and it’s both poignant and uncomfortably hilarious to watch it happen as Julio Iglesias croons over a blithe sea of organ and horns. It is this blend of the cynical and the romantic that make le Carré’s best books more than thrillers, and Alfredson has captured it in a very stylish manner indeed.

Read Jonathan L. Fischer’s critic’s pick.