Spies and drop-outs in Venice for the Golden Lion

Spies, torture and betrayal have come to Venice with Tomas Alfredson's cold war thriller, "Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy" - an espionage whodunit, without a James Bond gadget or femme fatale in sight.

The Swedish director's adaptation of John le Carre's bestselling novel peers into the dark heart of "the Circus" in the 1970s, as the circle tightens on a mole at the top of British intelligence leaking secrets to the Soviets.

Control, played by John Hurt, has five suspects in mind and turns the search over to his faithful right-hand man George Smiley, who must stealthily work under the radar with just a handful of trusted men to track down the culprit.

Like a chess game, Smiley, played by an inscrutable Gary Oldman, must outwit the so-called Tailor (Academy Award winner Colin Firth), Tinker (Toby Jones) and Soldier (Ciaran Hinds) while keeping the rogue agent (Tom Hardy) alive.

The script's minimal dialogue highlights Alfredson's indulgence in visual detail in a film set for the most part indoors in the warren of corridors at the MI6 headquarters in London as well as safe houses in Istanbul and Turkey.

As well as working closely with le Carre, a former MI5 and MI6 officer, the scriptwriters consulted with other agents who were reportedly "touched" by the film, which critics have already tipped to win Venice's Golden Lion award.

The extra scenes added to the novel's plot came from true MI5 stories including a riotous party that had to be broken up by the police, the cast said at a press conference ahead of the film's world premiere on Monday evening.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays a younger intelligence officer who loyally helps track down the mole for Smiley, said "Tinker, Tailor" moved beyond its cold war narrative to explore the universal themes of alienation and sacrifice.

"The film is an essay on being male in an isolating workplace, of the loneliness of that world - and all you're left with is the trust of your colleagues and your morality," he said.

Male loneliness is also key to Todd Solondz's excellent superb new film "Dark Horse," starring Justin Bartha, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Zachary Booth and Christopher Walken, and premiering in the floating city on Monday as well.

To the surprise of his cult fans, the US director - of "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Happiness" and "Life During Wartime" fame - tempered his trademark biting humour with compassion, tenderness and a touch of redemption.

The dark comedy tells the tale of 30-something Abe, who still lives with his parents and clings to his adolescence, rejecting adult responsibilities in favour of expanding his cherished collection of toys and action figures.

A college drop-out who argues incessantly with his father and is coddled by his mother, the largely friendless Abe grabs the chance for true love when he meets Miranda, a depressed 30-something whose life is in tatters.

Though the overweight Abe energetically throws himself into his new romance, he is unable to create any real intimacy with his betrothed and, tormented by fears and haunted by dark dreams, his life slips quickly towards tragedy.

"It's funny, because as much as it's a comedy of sorts, I don't ever really laugh when I watch it. It's very sorrowful, and there's a melancholy to the experience," Solondz said in Venice after an advance press screening.

The title "Dark Horse," he said, conjures up Abe's untapped potential - "a long shot of sorts, an outsider so to speak" - just one of a generation of men who have failed to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

"The character has a collection but, more tellingly, the collection owns him," he said. Such infantalism "is very symptomatic of a consumerist society," where prized objects replace a longed-for intimacy, Solondz said.

Laugh-out-loud scenes mix with moments of quiet despair and compassion to create a poignant and melancholy tale which fulfilled the director's main aim: "to see if I could make a movie without rape, paedophilia or masturbation."

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