For fans of Le Carre's book there are changes and the book's somewhat meaty storyline has been pared down, but the key events are here (if moved to a different setting). It's the 1970s and Britain is still occupied with the Cold War, not the man on the street but the men in the shadowy world of The Circus, the home of Britain's spies. Chief spymaster Control (Hurt) sends Jim Prideaux (Strong) on a mission to Hungary but things go wrong leading to Control being ousted and his most trusted advisor George Smiley (Oldman) following him out the door, literally.
A year later, Smiley is called back to The Circus, tasked with unearthing a double agent, a mole working for Russia and its own shadowy spymaster Karla. There are four possible suspects, all of whom helped get rid of Smiley in the first place, new Circus head honcho Percy Alleline (Jones), charismatic Bill Haydon (Firth), Alleline's puppy dog Roy Bland (Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (Dencik) who has crossed over himself.
Alfredson immerses you in the world of the watchers, everything feels grey and grimy and there's fantastic attention to detail in the film's production design. He also uses an interesting way of shooting the film, we often watch the action through windows or nooks and crannies, making the audience member spy on the action. It's only at pivotal moments that he really goes for the close-up. One of the times he does this is when Smiley describes how he met Karla but let him get away. It's not done in flashback but the camera stays on Smiley's face as he becomes animated for one of the few times in the film. Oldman delivers an acting masterclass in the scene, you understand his sense of loss at the end, it's all there on his face. I also like the decision to rarely have Smiley raise his voice, he does it only once and you notice it straight away.
Alfredson isn't afraid to let the material breathe and have periods of silence. One scene features Ricki Tarr (Hardy) and his Russian counterpart Irina finally giving in to their passion for one another, Alfredson choses not to have a musical crescendo but to let the audience hear the sounds of the couple kissing and their breathing getting faster. Again making you almost feel as you're spying on them.
This is Oldman's film, he inhabits Smiley completely and I couldn't believe I was watching the same actor who plays Sirius Black or Commander Gordon. But he's given great support, in particular by Benedict playing Smiley's right handman Peter Guillam (the Watson to Smiley's Sherlock), happy to help at the beginning but slowly seeing his career and life unravel as he digs deeper into what's really going on. Firth plays handsome Haydon with relish and gets most of the best lines but the film's best line goes to Burke as Connie, it's great to see her back on screen. My only gripe is it's easy to guess the double agent. And that's not because I'm reading the book (I haven't finished it yet).
This is one of the best films of the year. It's smart, really well acted and beautifully made. And I expect it to be a contender come awards season.
EXTRAS ★★★★ A good package indeed: there's an audio commentary with star Oldman and director Alfredson; an interview with author John Le Carre; deleted scenes; a featurette on the character George Smiley; the featurette Inside The Circus; the featuretteShadow World; an interivew with co-star Hardy; and interview with director Alfredson and screenwriter Straughan; a featuretteon the film's UK premiere; a Sky Movies featurette; a photo gallery; the theatrical trailer.