A Endlessly Rich 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

The new screen adaptation of John le Carre's Cold War spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, addresses a simple question: Is there a Soviet secret agent at the very highest echelons of British intelligence? Getting to the answer is brilliantly complex.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

From the computer screen to the big screen, the new movie "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is based on the classic Cold War spy novel by John le Carre. Years ago it was a very popular British television miniseries starring Sir Alec Guinness. With a review of the new film, here's critic Kenneth Turan.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: The question at the heart of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is simplicity itself. Is there a Soviet secret agent at the very highest echelons of British intelligence? Getting to the answer, however, couldn't be more brilliantly complex. The game begins with Control, Britain's top spymaster, played by John Hurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY")

JOHN HURT: (as Control) All I want from you is one code name.

TURAN: He suspects a mole and sends one of his best men behind the Iron Curtain to try and find out the name of the Soviet spy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Tinker.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) And?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Tailor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) And?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) Soldier.

TURAN: That trip does not go as planned, and both Control and the inscrutable George Smiley are forced into early retirement. Then, unexpectedly, a senior government official calls Smiley back into the game to find out who the spy is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY")

GARY OLDMAN: (as Smiley) I'm retired, Oliver. You fired me.

SIMON MCBURNEY: (as Oliver Lacon) The thing is, some time ago before Control died, he came to me with a similar suggestion, that there is a mole. He never mentioned his suspicions to you?

OLDMAN: No.

TURAN: It was not an obvious choice to cast Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Oldman is an actor known for his frenetic characters, and Smiley, by all appearances, is tired, colorless, and defeated. But under the surface this imperturbable man is a master at his game, and Oldman's commanding performance gains strength from its complete restraint. "Tinker Tailor" is directed by Sweden's Tomas Alfredson, who created a stir with his vampire-themed "Let the Right One In." His film is endlessly rich in incident, atmosphere and personality, and it leaves us hanging on by the barest skin of our teeth as we try to figure out who was doing what to whom and why. "Tinker Tailor" reminds us of the drama inherent in the merciless world of Cold War espionage, where trust is an illusion and nothing is remotely what it seems.

WERTHEIMER: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for the Los Angeles Times and MORNING EDITION.

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