There might not be any 20th Century novelist as well-served by dramatic adaptations of his works as British spy author (and former British spy) John le Carré: the not-as-great films taken from his body of work feature such wholly enjoyable thinking-heavy thrillers as The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama, while the great ones include the rather terrific '60s film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the outstanding 1979 BBC miniseries Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of the finest things aired on television in that decade. So there was very little reason to assume that the new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be anything less than quite good, especially coming as it does from one of le Carré's very best books. What I would never have expected in my most outrageously optimistic moods is that TTSS '11 would end up putting in a strong bid for being the best adaptation of le Carré ever made, but here we are.

That's a bold statement to make and worthy of qualification. Self-evidently, the new movie is not as deep and thoughtful as the miniseries almost three times its length, which itself already had to make compromises with some of the thematic denseness of the novel just in order to make sense of its narrative. But the feature is about as complex and heavy and well-executed as a 127-minute version of this story could ever be, and its screenplay, credited to Peter Straughan and Bridget O'Connor (who died just after finishing), is a miracle of compression and concision. It is a great feature version of the material, very different from the great miniseries version of the material, and absolutely its own thing: smartly, the writers have re-conceived or invented just enough material from the two previous iterations that this story feels brand new and fresh.

As for what it actually is: the film begins with a cryptic little scene in which an ancient-looking and ancient-sounding man referred to a Control (John Hurt) sends middle-aged Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) to Cold War Hungary on what we quickly suss out is a spy mission of some kind: the details will have to wait for later, because Prideaux's cover is quickly blown, and he's shot in the back by a Soviet agent. This is followed by a wordless montage in which Control, who we now find to be head of the British intelligence service, "the Circus, is forced out, along with his right-hand man George Smiley (Gary Oldman); Control is replaced by Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), with his close followers Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds), and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), who had executed the coup in part thanks to a side project they'd been running with incredibly valuable Russian intel, code-named "Witchcraft".

As the film properly begins some months later, Smiley, now a bland middle-aged man with nothing to do but quietly sit in the corner and wait for old age and death, is approached by the secretary in charge of intelligence, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) with a mission of particular delicacy: recent intelligence has come to light suggesting that there is a mole in the very highest ranks of the Circus, and Smiley is in a unique position to hunt for that mole and smoke him out. The retired spy takes this opportunity at once, and one suspects that it has less to do with his patriotic fervor at stopping the Russians from making of fool of Great Britain, than from having the chance to do something active, and especially the chance to prove that he was right and that little twerp Alleline was wrong. The subsequent plot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, especially in Straughan and O'Connor's hands, is about the steady reveal of that selfsame plot, one step at a time, and I will do the unspoiled reader the service of saying nothing else about it.

In all three forms, TTSS is ultimately less about the search than the man doing the searching: a character study of the spy in mid-life, given plenty of reasons to be bitter and frustrated, and then given a chance to do something about it. When Alec Guinness played the part in 1979, the result was one of the best performances of a career particularly well-stocked with best performances; even as fine an actor as Oldman never had a chance to match it, except that Oldman both had that chance and did match it in what is by a comfortable margin the best performance of his own career, itself not wanting for some awfully great work. So perfect is his work as this film's version of Smiley that there's not even a real temptation to compare the two, except insofar as it is instructive to point out that where Guinness's Smiley was a methodical, outwardly kindly but a tough bloodhound on the inside, Oldman's is a far pricklier, more bastardly Smiley that is maybe a wee smidgen closer to the one present in le Carré's novels.

A film like this needs a strong performance, because nearly the whole story is talking: it is a thriller - and a brazenly fast-paced one, given how little actual incident it contains - about learning information from conversations and then piecing things together. We need something to hang onto in all that, and Oldman fits the bill spectacularly well. He has a way of actively listening that I don't know how to describe, other than to say that at many points in the film, he put me in mind of an iguana: sitting there, still as a stone, but glaring right at you with its probing and somehow judgmental lizard eyes, and it only seems to movie - fast! - when you're not looking. There is real danger in Oldman's Smiley, not to us of course; we're rooting for him. But there is no moment in which it doesn't seem like he is the smartest person in the room with the best poker face, and if he wants to destroy his opponent, that is always his option (it's no accident, surely, that where the miniseries is associated with a Russian nesting doll, the feature is marked with the repeated use of oh-so-symbolic chess pieces).

Oldman is the best thing in the whole movie, but there's virtually nothing in it that is not absolutely extraordinary: the rest of the cast, made up of some of the most reliable male British character actors under 60, are uniformly perfect, even people like Benedict Cumberbatch who you don't typically expect great things from. The lead is not the only actor who gives a best-in-career performance, let's put it that way. And Thomas Alfredson, the director who broke through in 2008 in such a big way with Let the Right One In leads an incredibly accomplished team of craftsmen including Maria Djurkovic, costume designer Jacqueline Durran, and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema whose combined work makes a surpassingly convincing version of 1970s England not only for the mere pornographic charm of seeing a good time capsule piece, but because of the distinct mood that is generated from the location - the overwhelming brownness of it all gives the whole film a feeling of institutional blandness that sets off the grubby, domestic cloak-and-dagger storytelling just right. I hesitate not at all in saying that no film since Zodiac has recreated the time period so well, nor to such pointed effect.

It's not just a great film to look at: Alfredson does better work than should be possible keeping this material legitimately exciting (the miniseries, for all its glories, is very deliberate and slow-moving), aided by a mercilessly efficient screenplay. If there is, in fact, a complaint that I do have about the film, it's that Straughan and O'Connor pared things down so ruthlessly to keep things to a compact but hardly short running time, that they don't bother making things easy for even a split second. Some hugely important details - Haydon's affair with Smiley's wife is a huge example - are presented one time with no more emphasis than is necessary, and God help you if you were drifting in that moment. It's even a little bit exciting to be confronted with a script that demands so much of your attention, honestly, but it's not hard to imagine someone with no previous knowledge of the story finding parts of it hard to follow, or missing out on some of the psychological and thematic substance if they did not come read to think, and think damn hard.

But back to my point: Alfredson's direction is crisp and driven, without the movie ever feeling like it's being rushed along, and of all the great visual collaborators on the movie (and Alberto Iglesias, whose score is atmospheric without being obvious), the most important person might well be editor Dino Jonsäter, who helps the director move through the nonlinear nest of flashbacks and the lengthy passages of talking and listening with real brio. There is a shot in which a panning close-up of chess pieces jumps to a past memory; that flashback ends by jumping right back into the same pan, which gives both the flashback and the final frame of that pan the jarring impact of a gunshot by your ear; it might be my favorite single cut of the year so far. Later, a sequence involving the theft of a folder from the Circus is perhaps the most nerve-wracking suspense sequence I've seen in 2011, for much the same reasons. Ultimately, I can't think of any better way to praise the film than this: it was breathless and exciting and kept me glued to every second in rapt attention, despite telling a story I revisited twice in two different formats in the last month. When that's the case, a whole lot of people are doing a whole lot of things right.