Tomas Alfredson‘s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Focus Features, 12.9) is one dense opaque stew. And so crisply realized. Wait…what does that mean, “crisply realized”? Crisp like a Saltine or Heinz cracker? I’d better start over and just call it simultaneously ambiguous and clean and masterful in the manner of a slowed-down pulse. It’s a film that you need to see at least twice — once to sit in your seat and go “aaahh, yes…so adult and complex and underemphasized” and a second time to pay even closer attention and tie up the loose ends.

It’s a furrowed-brow spy film, cautious and probing and undashing, submerged in a world of half-clues and telling looks and indications…London fog and brain matter and ’70s technology…it’s just atmospherically dead-on. And that’s certainly pleasurable in itself.

I don’t want to get into this too deeply because the film doesn’t open for another nine or ten weeks but I can at least say that Gary Oldman‘s performance as George Smiley has to be considered…no, trumpeted as Best Actor-worthy. I’ve read a couple of reviews that claim he’s not aping Alec Guinness‘s performance as Smiley in the 1979 British miniseries version. Well, he does seem to be doing that. To me, at least. Oldman barely moves in this thing, but oh, how he delivers! The man is an absolute pleasure just to watch…to simply regard. The stillness of him is sublime.

Oldman is doing the old minimalist two-step, of course, but in a more expressive way than, say, Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs. Her character is extremely cautious and guarded in order to hide her true identity. Oldman’s Smiley isn’t hiding himself in the slightest, but his manner is naturally circumspect and cerebral and analytical. As a matter of professional purpose and demeanor he’s chosen to be this way, and there’s something gassy about this from an audience perspective.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is cut from the same cloth as Martin Ritt‘s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The story is about treachery and betrayal and misdirection, but more profoundly about the political murk and tedium of British civil-service submission. A hunt for a traitor, for traces of memory. A movie about staffers and freelancers and gray hair, gray faces, Burberry overcoats, endless cigarettes and glasses of whiskey. I’ve read the John LeCarre book and seen the Guinness version so I was able to stay with the plot particulars and keep it more or less together in my head, but others….aah, let’s wait until December.

So it’s a fine Le Carre immersion but….how to put this? It feels hermetic. I somehow never got the sense that the boys of MI6 and MI5 are all that heavily connected to the government or to great power, or that they really are “on the front lines against the Soviets,” as Ciaran Hinds proclaims early on. It’s like their world is entirely cut off from everything else. Like the action is all taking place in a large asylum.

And yet it didn’t lose me for a second. LeCarre stories have always been my cup of tea. I love spook stuff. And I can’t stop humming over Oldman’s underplaying & immaculate restraint. What a jewel of a performance. And Tom Hardy as Ricky Tarr! I have to say that the finale felt a bit anticlimactic on some level. I have three or four other gripes, actually, but there’s plenty of time. This is such a fine and subtle film — a kind of pleasure cruise for adults who eat this shit up. It’s amazing that it was made for theatrical, but glad it was made. Have I said “Hail Oldman!”?

Thanks to Focus Features for allowing me to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy yesterday evening, and thus sparing me the cost and trouble of flying to London and all that. I was apparently the only one seeing it in Manhattan. The spy drama was also shown to others on the West Coast so yesterday was obviously the day. Thanks very much.