Gary Oldman is the greatest but perhaps least appreciated British film actor of his generation. Not only does he have extraordinary range - his better-known roles include incarnations as Sid Vicious, Count Dracula and Lee Harvey Oswald - but in more than a quarter century of performances he has never played a false, uninspired or uninteresting note.
Never showy or over the top, if Oldman is not as celebrated as contemporaries like Daniel Day Lewis, Colin Firth or even Tim Roth, it is partly because he inhabits his roles so completely. There is no trace of a Gary Oldman persona, never a sense that this is a typical Oldman performance. (Hollywood discovered early on that Oldman could produce faultless and consistent American accents of every regional hue, and has had him play everything from evil Republican senators to Batman's Commissioner Gordon.)
Oldman's quiet but profound skills and lack of evident ego make him an inspired choice to play George Smiley in the new adaptation of John le Carré's classic spy novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
It is no small thing to take on a role that Sir Alec Guinness made his in the celebrated 1979 BBC TV series. And there are times in the new film when Oldman sounds eerily like Guinness, while looking disconcertingly like the comic actor Bill Nighy. But Oldman pulls it off in a performance that risks being almost too contained, until a moment comes when his reticent, long-suffering, regret-wracked spy confronts a villain and vengeful anger suddenly fills his voice and eyes.
For those who know neither the novel nor the series, the plot concerns the search for a Russian "mole" at the very top of the British intelligence service. Smiley, a former senior spymaster, is brought out of retirement to figure out who among the four most senior men in the service is the traitor. These four, and other key roles are played, superbly, by a prize collection of our best screen actors, including John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The film is directed by Tomas Alfredson, the brilliant Swede who made 2008's disturbing Let the Right One In. He brings a bracing Scandinavian chill and deliberate but never ponderous pacing to the material. He and his team have a remarkably accurate sense of mid-70s London - a vanished world of orange and brown furnishings, Trebor mints and smoke-filled interiors, overshadowed by memories of the Second World War.
For most of the film it is possibly to forget that le Carré himself - who is listed as a producer - has become something of a crank. His recent novels and public statements manifest a bitter anti-Americanism and an obsessive dislike of Israel and its supposed influence on US foreign policy. He makes sophomoric statements about the evils of Western capitalism in the Third World. Arguably some Graham Greene-like prejudices about Jews are evident in novels like The Tailor of Panama.
However, the only trace of le Carré's late-career creepiness is the presence in the screenplay (by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan) of snide anti-American notes that are not in the original novel, including a reference to the Americans torturing a would-be KGB defector.