The Spy Who Came In From the Fog 

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

How is it that our best spies can't detect the failures of their own love lives?

From Bond to Bourne, fictional heroes are swell at stopping evildoers and saving the world, but for the life of them, they can't save their relationships. And so it is with George Smiley, the unlikeliest of leading men in the fabulous Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Tautly underplayed by the underappreciated Gary Oldman, Smiley is a broken man--personally and professionally. Following his wife's affair with a colleague, she walks out on their marriage. Concurrently, he is dismissed from the so-called "Circus" (an inside-joke moniker for Britain's spy agency). Smiley slinks away from his life's profession and into a forgettable, lower middle-class existence.

He's a decent but instantly forgettable everyman with his rumpled trench coat and Larry King-size eyeglasses. But soon enough, it's discovered that someone very high up in the spy agency is leaking vital information to the Soviets, and Smiley comes back in from the London fog to conduct a covert probe, hoping to unearth the mole. But who is to be believed? And, more importantly, is Smiley up to the task?

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Smiley has no bag of tricks--no disguises or gadgets. But his arsenal does include a formidable brain. Rather than dazzle adversaries with wit, he simply waits and waits some more. He lets others make assumptions and, ultimately, mistakes. Smiley's gambits are bloodless, but the stakes are always tangible.

An early scene of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reveals volumes. The scene, filmed in silhouette through an automobile's rear window, shows Smiley sitting in the back seat with two fellow spies in the front. Suddenly, a bee is found inside the car--the two men in the front seat begin flailing about in fear of being stung. The scene goes on for nearly a minute with Smiley moving nary a muscle. Finally, he simply rolls his window down to let the bee fly away.

When John le Carre wrote Tinker, and BBC adapted the bestseller into a seven-hour miniseries in the 1970s, it was less a nostalgic reminiscence and more of a contemporary consideration of the Cold War, in which U.K. or American agents wrestled with Soviets over missile codes. What we learned from le Carre's brilliant series of novels was that Cold War mental jousting achieved some false sense of moral relativism--quite heady stuff compared to today's spies, who are anxious to wreck a car or two and blow up city blocks without mussing their hair.

The real mystery in this year's Tinker is how Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) expertly condensed le Carre's novel into a cracking 127 minutes. There isn't a lost moment in Tinker, so be forewarned--don't leave your seat during the film. In a movie this cerebral and deliberate, you won't want to miss a clue.

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