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THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Revisiting the fog of the Cold War

New adaptation revives le Carr’s canon of intrigue

Gary Oldman as George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’’ a film directed by Tomas Alfredson. Gary Oldman as George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,’’ a film directed by Tomas Alfredson. (JACK ENGLISH/FOCUS FEATURES)
By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2011
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Confusion. It is the fundamental attribute of nearly every cinematic adaptation of the works of John le Carré, as it is of the novels on which they are based. It is also the likely reaction to another film version of le Carré’s most famous novel, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.’’ The latest adaptation, directed by Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In’’) and starring Gary Oldman, will hit screens everywhere on Friday. Why resuscitate this Cold War spy thriller when the Cold War is 20 years past? It makes as much linear sense as anything in the much-loved le Carré canon. And while we’re wondering about Oldman’s ability to do combat with the black-overcoat-clad ghost of Alec Guinness, who so memorably inhabited the role of George Smiley on TV, it seems like an ideal time to pull out our code books and poison-tipped umbrellas and study this author’s cinematic legacy.

The original “Tinker Tailor,’’ broadcast as a BBC miniseries in 1979, was, like some spy-movie equivalent of James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,’’ famously, fiendishly difficult to follow. Guinness, pale of skin, pursed of lip, deceptively placid of mien, led a search for a mole in British intelligence that never seemed to progress or develop over a half-dozen hours. This is a spy story that unfolds in a series of dimly lit, cramped rooms, with polite middle-aged spooks stealthily palpating each other, searching for hidden weaknesses. “The key to enjoyment, I think,’’ writes David Thomson in his entry on “Tinker’’ in his book “Have You Seen?’’ “is the grave affinity between English actors putting on a brave yet tight-lipped show and spies, forever fondling small talk and adverbs.’’ “Smiley’s People,’’ from 1982, was a lesser sequel, but still offered the minor-key delights of Guinness - an iron fist in a drab gray glove - sitting in silent judgment over his colleagues.

Le Carré’s stories thrive on reversals and deliberately withheld clarifications. Whether set in Cold War Berlin, perestroika-era Russia, or modern-day Kenya, the moral remains the same: Other human beings are fundamentally unknowable, and the heroic effort to understand them is at the root of all intelligence-gathering. Lulling audiences into overlooking their narrative lacunae, the inevitable reversals and betrayals endemic to le Carré can, in the hands of a savvy filmmaker, be invested with genuine emotional power.

The first le Carré adaptation, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’’ (1965), released just three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, is still the best to this point, its gloom rendering the cat-and-mouse dynamic of the Cold War as a competition between “a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me.’’ The words belong to Richard Burton’s shabby Alec Leamas, an intelligence officer sent to East Germany to convince his ostensible Communist handlers that he is a frustrated British agent, underpaid and alcoholic, in search of a payday. Burton, like Alec Guinness to come, is the quintessential le Carré hero: mercurial, enervated, and defiantly rumpled.

The secret clash between communism and capitalism was le Carré’s favorite subject, and the source of his own training in spycraft with the British intelligence services. In recent years, le Carré has admirably faced the doom of so many other spy novelists - the end of the Cold War - with aplomb, and film adaptations have ranged further afield, with surprising success. “The Russia House’’ (1990), directed by Fred Schepisi from a script by Tom Stoppard, is too dependent on the familiar old routines to succeed, but Sean Connery’s education in the elementary lessons of spookery is bouncily entertaining.

John Boorman’s underrated “The Tailor of Panama’’ (2001), with a screenplay co-written by le Carré, is an outrageous black comedy of Olympic-level competitive cynicism, in which liars jostle to see who can tell the biggest whopper - and who can get others to believe them. Geoffrey Rush’s faux-Savile Row tailor peddles tall tales of a homegrown Panamanian opposition consisting mostly of his drunken friends, and Pierce Brosnan’s amoral diplomat gladly swallows it whole, knowing that “it plays’’ with his overly credulous superiors. Rush and Brosnan exchange confidences in a hot-sheet motel, the bed they sit on steadily vibrating, visually raising the question: Just who is screwing whom here?

If “Tailor of Panama’’ is a comedy of errors, “The Constant Gardener’’ (2005) is a more muted, somber effort, in the vein of “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.’’ It is also more of a director’s film, with Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (“City of God’’) using supersaturated images, canted frames, and an all-pervasive yellow filter to depict an African landscape abused by multinational pharmaceutical companies. The thematic undercurrent of Africa as perpetual victim is hackneyed at times, but the performances are uniformly sharp, led by Rachel Weisz’s Oscar-winning turn as a crusading aid worker. This is a spy movie by another name, with Ralph Fiennes’s mild British diplomat thrust into a shadowy underworld of secrets and intrigue.

The players and the locale are constantly changing in le Carré’s work, but the queasy feeling of Heisenbergian uncertainty remains. As soon as one puzzle is solved, another instantly reveals itself. George Smiley’s return is a reminder that, for le Carré, confusion is less a difficulty to be overcome than a permanent state of being. Who could be trusted? The answers never stick in these stories; the question of certainty in a faithless world forever lingers.

Saul Austerlitz can be reached at swa204@gmail.com.

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