George Smiley (Gary Oldman) hardly moves. He listens and observes. For the first 20 minutes of this new version of John Le Carre’s best-known spy novel he doesn’t even speak. Like Alec Guinness before him, he vanishes into the very busy seventies’ wallpaper as he tries to ferret out the mole at the top of ‘The Circus’ (MI5).
Rehired after a disastrous mission in Budapest, his boss needs to discover which of four men might be a double-agent, using an ambitious minister’s spy network in reverse polarity, sending out information instead of receiving it. Helping him are Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, both with secrets that could compromise them.
It’s not much of a whodunnit really, and that’s hardly the point. Even if you fail to follow all the subtleties of the abstruse game-playing (and there are plenty) you’ll be wowed by the atmosphere and mise-en-scene that presents seventies spy warfare as a series of shabby, selfish plays made in smoky rooms by melancholy men.
This is a series of all-star turns from a great roster of character actors, including Kathy Burke, fired for her curiosity, and Colin Firth, whose infidelity is revealed in a gruesomely accurate 70s Christmas party. Hiring the director of ‘Let The Right One In’ turns out to be a stroke of genius, because here its the tiny details upon which whole worlds turn – a drop of sweat, a pair of shoes – with only a chess set labelled with suspects providing too obvious an image.
Cumberbatch gets the best scene, ratcheting tension as he attempts to steal a file, and even this broader moment has a marvellous detail, as the insidious background music heard on a phone call slowly infects a building.
It won’t play with multiplex audiences – you really have to keep your wits about you for a couple of hours – but what a joy to be treated as an intelligent adult in the cinema again! Expect awards (although no Oscars – it’s not showy enough).