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MOVIE REVIEW: Oldman’s performance unnoticed in convoluted ‘Soldier Spy’

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

From a purely technical standpoint, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is to period espionage thrillers what "The Artist" is to black and white silent films. Not only is it set in the '70s, it's designed, shot, scored, acted and directed as if it were being made in the '70s. This goes far in lending the production immense credibility -- again from a technical perspective -- but in the process makes it feel gimmicky and present mostly to cover-up just a so-so story.

Like the nine-hour late '70s BBC miniseries of the same name, "TTSS" is based on the novel by John le Carre and while it has its bright spots, it is loaded down with piles and piles of minutia that is present solely for the sake of making it seem smarter than it actually is.

While certainly no hack, le Carre made his mark in the spy genre by putting as many words on the page as he could and often substituted quantity for quality. If Ernest Hemingway had taken the same premise, events, characters and twists as le Carre, the novel would have been half as long and twice as good.

In the part played by the late Sir Alec Guinness in the miniseries, Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a high-ranking agent in the "Circus," the British equivalent of the American CIA. The film opens with Smiley being forcibly retired by the oddly named Control (John Hurt) who -- in what seems like only minutes later -- brings him back in order to ferret out one of their own who is selling secrets to the Russians.

The biggest problem facing screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan was in deciding what to keep and what to toss from the book. They removed relatively little, which made Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's job significantly harder. The film has zero downtime, which in a way is good, but if you blink at the wrong time, you'll be lost with no chance to regain your bearings. The movie is literally a chore to watch and is often contemptuous of the audience. It's a far cry both in style, pace and attitude from Alfredson's recent "Let the Right One In," the contemplative and brittle vampire masterpiece.

The success or failure of any espionage thriller is contingent on the twists and the red herrings, and "TTSS" has both in droves. No less than a half-dozen suspects are suggested and explored, all of them in a competent manner, and by the time it's over a plausible conclusion is provided but it is highly unsatisfying and nonsensical. For audiences to go through this much trouble to follow the story and get handed such a lazy, cop-out ending is an insult.

Before the filmmakers dump this huge chunk of post-holiday coal on us, we are treated to a bevy of sharp supporting turns by the likes of Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Hurt and Tom Hardy. Though everyone mentioned is given primo chunks of dialogue, it is the non-verbal interplay between them that tells us the most about who they are and their motivations.

As with this week's only other major release ("A Dangerous Method"), "TTSS" was screened for the press far in advance with the hopes it would generate a bunch of insider buzz and land on everyone's Top 10 list while also snaring multiple Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations. Neither of the movies made enough of a positive impression to do so and the studios for both bumped up their release dates from mid-January to this weekend -- one of the least desirable of the year -- in order to avoid further lukewarm word-of-mouth.

The biggest loser (besides audiences) in all of this is Oldman. An actor of impeccable decorum and immense talent, his entire career is festooned with one brilliant performance after another and he -- shockingly -- has never received a single Academy Award nomination. Before anyone even saw "TTSS," Oldman was almost everyone's pick to not only get his first-ever nomination but to receive a likely "lifetime achievement" win a la Paul Newman or Al Pacino. Oldman is great playing a character that goes largely unnoticed on purpose. Unfortunately, the movie does the same thing by accident. (Focus Features)