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Celluloid chameleon

Gary Oldman tackles an iconic John le Carre spy, in one of the most anticipated films of 2012.

Gary Oldman tackles an iconic John le Carre spy, in one of the most anticipated films of 2012.

Gary Oldman has forged a long and successful career by inhabiting other people's skins. Now he tackles John le Carre's iconic spy, George Smiley, in one of the most anticipated films of this year, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

TRY picking Gary Oldman in a line-up. It's hard to think of another actor with such a gift for transformation, of anyone who is so thoroughly unrecognisable from one role to the next. Peter Sellers, of course, but his art was one of mimicry and disguise Oldman's shape-shifting seems to be driven from the inside outwards, turning his body into that of someone who has lived another life altogether. The early roles were wild and extreme: he was skinny and snuffling as Sid Vicious, muscled and strutting as Joe Orton, cringing and somehow dwindled as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK.

Then there was a drinking-shaped gap before he settled into two of the biggest franchises of the last decade, playing Commissioner Gordon in Chris Nolan's reinvented Batman and the wizard world's most desirable uncle, Sirius Black, in the Harry Potter films.

Now here he is as George Smiley, John le Carre's famous spy, in a tremendous new adaptation of his 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Smiley, brought out of retirement to ferret out a Soviet mole in the author's version of the British MI6, nicknamed the Circus, is about as far from wildness or, indeed, the glamour of Sirius Black as anyone could be: plump, dutiful, middle-aged and battle-fatigued.

''Most actors feel typecast,'' says Colin Firth, who in the film plays Bill Haydon, one of the Circus' top brass and a possible suspect. ''Gary Oldman is one of the few actors in the world who has exhibited such versatility that people believe he can play anything.''

Perhaps that's the sort of thing a good spy can do: change enough to match the wallpaper wherever he is. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was adapted for television in 1979 in a landmark seven-part series starring Sir Alec Guinness. Nobody who saw that series will forget Guinness's face, impassive as the unruffled Smiley must be, but so ridged and wrinkled and full of sheer star quality that you remained glued in the hope that he might, at some stage, raise one ironic eyebrow. Oldman, by contrast, has disappeared again.

He is younger than Guinness was but somehow greyer hounded out of the Circus by a bunch of ambitious bureaucrats and humiliated at home by a faithless wife, he doesn't look disillusioned so much as embody disillusionment. You can sense his steely disappointment even in the dark.

''It's a complicated character,'' says Tomas Alfredson, director of the new film, ''because he is described as someone you would immediately forget if you met him on the street. But you can't have a main character who is not interesting enough to watch for two hours or whom you forget every time you see him. So that's quite a contradiction.

''I think Gary has made fantastic work from that, using very small moves. You sort of live with him. You think with him.''

When the television series came out in 1979, it was almost an elegy to an era that was already slipping away, of peeling paint in partitioned offices, coteries of men breathing the same stale fog of cigarette smoke and Cold War paranoia and addressing each other in clipped tones that would not have sounded out of place in a Victorian officers' mess. They never speak carelessly - loose lips, they would remember from their wartime childhoods, sink ships - but the odd snobbish aside, such as Haydon's dismissal of some lesser fellow as ''red-brick'', give glimpses of a cast of mind fossilised well before the Cold War began.

Their virtues, too, come from an earlier era: the best of them, such as George Smiley, are resolute, restrained, loyal and stoic.

''The series was made, in a curious way, as a love story to a fading British establishment,'' le Carre, 81, reflected in an interview with London's Telegraph. ''Even the nastiest characters were in some way huggable. Everybody loved that it was a very English document. Now, when you come to make this movie, you can't do that it isn't there any more. The ethic and the affections have all shifted. This has to be a much tougher thing, with a great deal less sentiment.''

Oldman says le Carre described the tone of Circus dealings in a phrase that became a touchstone for him. ''He referred to Smiley and some of these other characters as being ruthlessly polite, which I thought was great as a description. There is a sadistic side to Smiley. I think it's there in the book more than it was in the series and we wanted to play that a little more.''

Tomas Alfredson has no reason to be sentimental about these vestiges of Empire, being Swedish. He was asked by the producers at Working Title to direct the script, written by husband-and-wife team Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor, on the strength of his doomily atmospheric vampire film Let the Right One In. ''That was the really ingenious thing,'' says Oldman. ''One of those British guys could have made it a bit romantic or have been tempted to make it a bit post-Bourne. I think it's audacious to have someone who doesn't bring a baggage of Britishness to it and who doesn't feel the pressure to update it, wham-bam, here's an explosion, here's a car chase.''

The notes Alfredson gave him, he says, were about telling details, such as the fleeting moment when a bee creates havoc in a car full of people and Smiley opens his window just enough to wave it out.

''He said it spoke of his character more than one could in 10 pages of dialogue.'' Oldman himself proposed that, while waiting in the shadows of a ''safehouse'' for the traitor to enter his trap, he should quietly take a mint out of his briefcase. ''If he'd said, 'No, don't eat a mint', I wouldn't have been offended. All I said was that I had mints in my bag. But he's just that type of guy. He said, 'I love that. I love the sound of it rattling against your teeth, like old people'.''

Alfredson says he doesn't like thrillers. He wasn't interested in directing one. He had read Tinker, Tailor when he was 25, more than two decades ago it was the screenplay that lured him.

''Peter and Bridget's screenplay created a lot of images,'' he says. ''Images are very much for me what you don't see - smells, things like that. The memory I have as a kid of visiting London the first time is very much about smells, like rubber from the buses, the smell of the subway, coal, the food. It was a very smelly place. To translate that into images is quite interesting.''

Le Carre was continually urging the writers to come up with new ideas, says Straughan everyone was pleased with O'Connor's idea that Smiley should swim alone in the freezing natural lakes on Hampstead Heath, even though that isn't in the book. ''That was such a lonely image,'' says Straughan. ''It really helped me.''

Straughan was six in 1974. He had no more interest than Alfredson in romanticising that past. ''There was nothing very glamorous about Britain in the '70s. I don't think you could have much nostalgia for British cars or suits then,'' he says.

''Why not?'' counters Alfredson. ''You could. You could find hits of the time and stuff the film with music that's the easiest way to do that. But that's just too easy. Everything is so easy these days when you look at films or television it's all spoon-feeding and filmmakers writing everything on your nose.

''There's no space between the audience and the filmmaker where the audience could be active and form their own opinions about what is happening. To try to keep a dialogue with a grown-up audience is, I think, extremely important.''

Obviously, a feature film cannot include the same sort of faithful detail as a seven-part television series. Still, there hasn't been any of the usual backlash from disappointed le Carre fans. British reviews of Alfredson's film have, indeed, verged on the ecstatic. ''Skin-crawlingly atmospheric, uncompromisingly cerebral and austere,'' wrote the Guardian critic in a five-star review. ''As lucid and accomplished a screen version of a long, complicated novel as I have seen,'' said The Observer.

Likewise, there is a collective rejoicing at Gary Oldman's ''return to proper work'', to use his own words. ''The tag of 'best actor never to win an Oscar','' wrote one interviewer, ''may be about to be passed on.''

Oldman admits that he hesitated before stepping into Sir Alec Guinness' brogues. ''You felt there may be a little bit of 'who does he think he is?' '' he has said. ''I didn't immediately say, 'Oh God, I'll do it!' I had to think about it. Could one do it? Or could I do it?'' What he decided, he says now, was that what had been seen as a definitive piece was now a classic open to reinterpretation. ''There's more than one Hamlet, more than one King Lear. I think that if you get the opportunity to play a great part, which it clearly is, you have to forget about all the other great people who played Hamlet. You just have to get that out of your head.''

His chief reference, he says, was le Carre himself. ''There are not many jobs where you have the opportunity to go and sit down to breakfast with John le Carre and I did. I met him, and it was one-stop shopping. He'd written the book, he'd written the characters, he'd been involved with the characters and he was a spy. He is the DNA of it. And there were vocal inflections, things I stole - I'm not doing John le Carre, but it's a mosaic of things.''

Le Carre is a pen name for David Cornwell, who worked as a spy himself for MI5 and then for MI6, running agents and interviewing defectors. In the past, he has said that Smiley was a combination of his fellow MI5 officer Lord Clanmorris (John Bingham), who bequeathed the character his glasses, and a brilliant Oxford theologian called Vivian L. Green. In interviews he has given for this film, he admits that there is a lot of him in there too. Smiley's social awkwardness, for example, was once his own.

He made Smiley's home life with a faithless, unfeeling wife hellish because his own upbringing had been so chaotic and frightening. There were the trappings of privilege - public school, Oxford - but his mother deserted the family when le Carre was five, and his father was a career confidence trickster who served at least one stretch in prison for fraud.

There is a clear line of connection here, albeit one that traverses a class gulf, to London lad Gary Oldman. Oldman's father left him when he was seven. Much of his adult life was tumultuous there were multiple marriages, alcoholism and a decade as a single father, which is why he stuck to doing smaller roles in big films that paid well.

''I made a decision that I would either be that dad who was always away or I'd be the dad that was around,'' he told The Guardian. ''Maybe it had something to do with my own dad not being around, who knows?'' When he met Alfredson, he asked him why he wanted him in the part. ''He said: 'Your face - it looks like you've lived a bit. You've been through some stuff.' I said, 'Yes! Oh, yes.' ''

Le Carre himself has suggested that the difference between Oldman's Smiley and previous incarnations is that ''with Oldman, you share the pain more. I think you share the danger of life, the danger of being who Smiley is. That is much more acute.''

It is a moral danger, however, more than a fear of being shot, even though that is always on the cards. These spies supposedly stand for absolutes - Queen and country, democratic freedoms, the duty to ensure that there will be honey still for tea - but spend most of their time dealing with painful ambiguities: what lives are worth saving, when to turn a blind eye, how many eggs you can justify breaking in the course of making an omelet. They cannot trust anyone, even each other.

''The mole in this story is not there to intrigue you with who it is,'' says Colin Firth, ''so much as to make you feel how heartbreaking it is that 30 years of everything you believe in is now poisoned because one of those people you thought of as a brother is not only a traitor, but means you harm.''

And yet none of this can be said their survival depends on perpetual self-control, on never giving the game away. The actors can't let rip, either they must make the most of tiny vocal inflections and facial twitches.

''It has its challenges,'' says Firth, ''but I think that element creeps into everything you do, actually. Because our job is the paradoxical one of showing and not showing this is just a very pronounced version of that. These people, all of them, feel very deeply. That's not what's brought to the fore in most thrillers, what a character feels they're sociopaths, most of them. But this is about how hard it is to be one of those people, in a way. That's what le Carre was writing about.''

Gary Oldman can somehow emanate that sense of life's hardness without moving a muscle. He hasn't really been away, but it's good to have him back.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens on January 19.

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