Director Tomas Alfredson (R) poses with cast members (L-R) Mark Strong, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth at the Los Angeles premiere of their film ''Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'' in Hollywood
Director Tomas Alfredson (R) poses with cast members (L-R) Mark Strong, Gary Oldman and Colin Firth at the Los Angeles premiere of their film ''Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'' in Hollywood December 6, 2011. Reuters

The new screen adaptation of John le Carre's classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should be rated S for Wear a sweater.

Director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) gives the proceedings such a palpable sense of that very British cold dampness that no one in the movie ever looks warm enough. But while the film operates in a very early '70s brand of groovy-tinged grimness, it's utterly compelling from start to finish.

The book previously spawned a six-hour BBC miniseries, so there's obviously a lot of cramming to make the material work as a movie, but the screenplay by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan is a marvel of exposition, offering a parade of characters (and their code names), international incidents, and alliances and double-crosses without ever leaving viewers baffled as to who's doing what to whom, and why.

It's 1973, and there's a Russian mole in the British intelligence agency MI6, also known as the Circus. One year earlier, after a failed mission in Hungary, the agency's ringmaster Control (John Hurt) and his devoted lieutenant George Smiley (Gary Oldman) got the boot, but now the government has secretly re-hired Smiley to ferret out the double agent in their midst.

If this were a 007 adventure, we'd get globe-hopping, sex with pretty ladies, and a big shootout in the villain's fortress, but that's worlds away from le Carre's universe -- if weapons-master Q were to emerge here, he'd be more likely to give Smiley a teakettle and a bunch of file folders rather than an Aston Martin with an ejector seat.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, at its core, a procedural, with Smiley and his associates (most notably Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch as an MI6 operative ferreting out intel for Smiley under his co-workers' noses) chasing down leads, digging up records, and generally connecting the dots.

But if this sounds dull, the film is anything but; Alfredson may actively eschew pizzazz in the visuals and editing, but he knows how to play up the paranoia and the tension effectively, making each new revelation riveting and capturing the grave consequences of Soviet espionage, even to audiences who were born after the Berlin Wall came down.

There's not a lot of room for dramatic grandstanding in this sort of story, but the cast brings this material alive, whether they're in the line of fire (like Tom Hardy's rogue agent) or making pronouncements in soundproofed rooms (Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth are among the higher-ups most likely to be the turncoat).

Even Oldman, who's ostensibly the star here, doesn't get any big Oscar-clip moments of emoting. Whether he's resigning in disgrace, realizing that his wife is cheating on him or springing a trap on a traitor, he keeps his cards close to the vest, and the result is one of his strongest performances, fully of a piece with the film's detached but engrossing style.

While all of the technical facets of Tinker Tailor are top-notch, special accolades are due to production designer Maria Djurkovic; no film since David Fincher's Zodiac has captured the wonderful awfulness of the early 1970s aesthetic quite so vividly. From the bright orange waffle-patterned foam rubber on the walls of the MI6 meeting rooms to the moist squalor of most of the apartments on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the film recreates the era to oppressive perfection.

Theaters this month will be overflowing with awards-bait films that try and fail to dazzle viewers, but Tinker Tailor captivates its audience by being aggressively, chillingly low-key.