Many book-to-film adaptations fail because they aren’t faithful enough, but just as often they’re too literal to succeed as cinema. In struggling to capture a book’s essence, they adhere closely to what the prose dictates but subsequently feel imprisoned to the page, not fully taking advantage of how visual and aural cues can act as enhancements. Although I haven’t read the John le Carré novel (or seen the 1979 BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness), I can assuredly say that TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a successful adaptation primarily because it’s so deliriously cinematic. Credit director Tomas Alfredson, whose previous film, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, also conveyed a talent for transforming the written word into visual poetry.

The first thing you notice in TINKER is not necessarily the dialogue (which is sparse and secondary throughout the opening set-piece) but the overall look. Set in the early ’70s, the bleak visual palette, full of drab grays and browns, institutional metal and concrete surfaces and very little bright light, vividly recreates an apathetic era of British Cold War culture—post-Swinging London, pre-Punk/New Wave. Simultaneously, the symphonic sound design makes it clear that you’re not simply watching a novel on-screen. Chilled silences alternate with the deafening roar of an underground train, voices instantly shift from an incomprehensible mumble to an impassioned shout and Alberto Iglesias’ somber, at times jazzy score adds texture but rarely manipulates.

Still, an adaptation does not succeed by style alone. Arguably, the real challenge Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughn faced was in rendering Le Carré’s labyrinthine narrative comprehensible as a feature-length film. With its substantial corral of characters, numerous flashbacks and typically twisty espionage-centered plot (concerning the search for a mole giving secrets away to the Soviets within “The Circus”, a fictional British Intelligence agency), it’s not easy to follow; admittedly, I clicked on the film’s Wikipedia page afterwards to sort a few things out. When viewing TINKER a second time, I easily parsed just how carefully constructed it was (for instance, you meet nearly all the characters during the opening credits, even though you don’t see a few of them again until much later), but its dense plotting and leisurely pace could act as a major deterrent for some viewers on their first go-around.

Fortunately, the key to deciphering TINKER is its central figure, George Smiley. Given his obvious acuity for completely disappearing into a role (such as Sid Vicious, Count Dracula and Sirius Black), Gary Oldman just kills it as the retired agent called back into service to find the mole. Reserved, weathered and resolutely owlish in his ginormously framed eyeglasses, he’s a reactor but also just as much an observer—traits easily taken for granted by others, but essential for espionage. By listening astutely and choosing his words (and actions) wisely, he puts all the pieces together. Likewise, if you pay close attention to everything Smiley says and does, TINKER gains considerable focus and clarity.

Additionally, a remarkable ensemble aids Oldman, from Colin Firth at his caddish best and a chameleonic-as-ever Tom Hardy to a perfectly craggy and authoritative John Hurt, plus good work from actors less familiar to American audiences such as Kathy Burke (featured in just one scene but unforgettable), Benedict Cumberbatch (boyish and loyal yet secretly tormented), and Mark Strong (testy yet utterly wounded by betrayal). In fact, everyone involved in this project seems devoted in bringing their best to it—a degree of passion and attention you wish all like-minded, considerably budgeted “prestige” pictures would take note of.

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