In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman plays a disgraced British spy covertly rehired to weed out a secret service mole in early 70’s London, a time when the western world was ablaze with Cold War hysteria and a Swedish pop group known by a four letter palindrome began making the kind of noise that would be blasted, decades later, into the ears of Guantanamo Bay inmates in a different but similarly nebulous war.

Oldman skilfully contains his performance in his brow and behind his cheeks. He sucks it in, keeps the ironically named George Smiley quiet and restrained but smart and determined — the visage of a man who knows more than you do but is still putting the pieces together, mentally mapping the final bumps and twists in the lead-up to a smug last minute reveal of the kind Marple, Poirot, Foyle, Lansbury riding a bicycle would approbate with a slow congratulatory nod.

His glum and unprepossessing presence is mirrored in the cold, muted look and clinical goings-on of director Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) adaptation of author John le Carré’s twisty whodunit. Alfredson and his writers clearly struggled to package the architecture of le Carré’s plot into two coherent hours, with thinly developed supporting characters and a smattering of side-plots, back-stories and flashbacks stir fried into a scramble, the central mystery draped on top to cloak the mess. When the story was previously attempted on the screen, in the late 70’s, it uncoiled in a seven part mini-series starring Alec Guinness.

Alfredson maintains an admirable lightness of touch, and the performances are fine, but narrative cohesion was the first victim of the cross-over and structurally the plot flies helter-skelter. Naturally it all comes together in the end, when Smiley is afforded his much earned gotcha moment and a chalk outline character is disappointingly shoehorned into the reveal then whisked to the naughty corner. Finding out the identity of the mole was, it ought to be noted, never very interesting to begin with, which makes Oldman’s fun-less performance all the more appropriate.

Tinker Tailor Solider Spy’s Australian theatrical release date: January 19, 2012.