Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Gary Oldman plays John Le Carré

How do you find an enemy who is hidden right before your eyes? 

John le Carré’s classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets brought to the big screen by Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson – and the result is a superbly clever, fiendishly gripping thriller that more than measures up to the iconic BBC TV series from 1979.

In the lead role, Gary Oldman has the hardest of hard acts to follow – Alec Guinness’s TV portrayal of le Carré’s spycatcher George Smiley has long seemed definitive, one of the finest ever examples of screen acting. Astonishingly, Oldman finds new shades and nuances in the character as the intricate plot unfolds.

Set in Cold War-era 1973, the story revolves around the presence of a Soviet mole at the heart of the the Circus, codename in le Carré’s books for the British secret intelligence service. A cloak-and-dagger mission in Budapest has been bloodily botched. In consequence, the head of the Circus, John Hurt’s Control, has been pushed out, as has his loyal lieutenant, Oldman’s watchful, melancholy Smiley. But when the government gets wind of the possibility that a Soviet agent has infiltrated the secret service, Smiley is recalled to root out the mole.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - Colin Firth, David Dencik & Toby Young

A cerebral affair

Who could the mole be? Is it the sleekly ambitious Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), dubbed ‘Tinker’ by Control? Or Colin Firth’s charmingly dapper Bill Haydon, ‘Tailor’? Or solid Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), ‘Soldier’? Or meddlesome Hungarian refugee Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), ‘Poor Man’?

The ensuing investigation features none of the macho heroics of a Bond or a Bourne. Instead, it’s very much a cerebral affair, as Oldman’s Smiley matches his wits against shadowy Soviet spy master Karla, playing a deadly game of chess in which you are never sure when your opponent has even made his move.

There’s none of the violent hand-to-hand combat or breakneck chases one usually associates with the spy genre nowadays, but adjust to its more considered pace and you’ll find Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy thrilling all the same. Alfredson may not deliver palm-dampening excitement, but as his spies conduct their feints and betrayals amid a world of beige-brown, tobacco-fugged drabness, the prevailing mood of prickling unease will keep you no less on edge.

On general release from 16th September.