Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn makes his Hollywood debut with Drive, a hyper-stylized crime thriller which combines the shadowy trappings of traditional film noir with glossy, ultra-modern violence.

Ryan Gosling stars as the anonymous driver, a car mechanic and stunt-performer for the movies who moonlights as a getaway wheelman for criminals. He is a strictly professional accomplice, giving robbers exactly five minutes of his time to get as far away as possible from the scene of the crime, for a price. His skills are cleverly demonstrated in an opening scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film as The Driver (we have to call him something…) sits outside a jewellery warehouse in an everyday car, souped-up by his boss and friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston). After picking up the two thieves, he takes them on a careful jaunt around the back streets, sticking to the speed limit, stopping at red lights and otherwise remaining completely ordinary. Avoiding the squealing tyres and flaming pile-ups of the standardized Hollywood action movie, they smoothly glide to safety.

Naturally, the Driver lives alone. His neighbours in the apartment building are Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). They meet one day at the garage where he works and, going against his own rules, he starts to develop feelings for her. Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison and, when he gets out, The Driver breaks another of his rules and befriends him. Forced to pay off a massive debt by robbing a pawn shop, The Driver offers to help. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.  Soon The Driver and Shannon are up to their necks in trouble with jittery psycho Bernie (an impeccable Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), who has the impermeable features of an Easter Island statue.

Drive is awash with echoes and allusions to classic Californian car movies, Peter Yates’ Bullit and Walter Hill’s The Driver in particular, yet they are reassembled into something hypnotically intense and achingly cool. At one point, Albert Brooks’ gangster says that he used to produce action pictures in the 80s that ‘the critics called European’, a knowing nod from Refn whose film could be described in the same manner. Although Drive is, in part, an exercise in reinventing genre clichés, Refn and his screenwriter Hossein Amini (adapting James Sallis’ novel) take unexpected swerves down little-used side streets.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s immaculate cinematography gives the film a glowing neon sheen, underlined by a throbbing synth soundtrack from Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez. The entire cast give strong performances, Gosling’s almost mute anti-hero in particular, but the real star of the film is Refn who proves he is a master of sustaining mood and tension; by turns violent and romantic, muted and melodramatic. But it doesn’t last. If the first half of Drive is involving and thrilling, the second half is a little less so. As The Driver abandons his strictly delineated rules, dramatic logic go with them, to be replaced by rapidly escalating violence. The carefully modulated mood fractures as Refn’s characters seem to wake from their dream-like torpor and savagely set about one another. The director doesn’t seem all that interested in exploring why these people are causing each other such pain, his attention distracted by the formal beauty in his jarringly graphic images; a fountain of blood, an exploding head, a switchblade applied to a vein.

The fact that Drive evaporates from the memory much more quickly that might be expected points towards Refn’s film being a triumph of style over substance, of execution over essence. But what extraordinary style, what flawless execution.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

For his first English language film, Swedish director Thomas Alfredson adapts John le Carré’s seminal spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for a beautifully acted and absorbing cold war thriller that is one of the best films we will see this year. This is a chill, autumnal film that perfectly suits the season, as the summer’s jumping pantomimes and fiddly 3D toy advertisements finally give way to more mature, grown-up cinema.

Opening with grainy images of a muted London in 1973, the story begins as Control (John Hurt), the head of MI6 (colloquially known as the Circus), dispatches field agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) on a secret mission to Budapest in order to convince a Hungarian army general to defect to the West. As Control explains it, the general holds a “treasure”, the identity of a mole within the Circus. Someone in the upper levels of the organisation has been sending secrets back to Karla, the Soviet’s spy master, and must be exposed before he does any more damage.

From his ramshackle flat on a sided-street, Control has narrowed down the suspects to five top men and code-named them according to the old nursery rhyme: “Tinker” for the ambitious Scot Percy Alleline (Toby Jones); “Tailor,” for the too-smooth Bill Haydon (Colin Firth); “Soldier,” for the granite-faced Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds),  “Poor Man” for the dicky-bow wearing Toby Esterhase (David Dencik); and finally “Beggarman,” for his own right-hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman). But Prideaux’s mission ends badly. Control is retired, falling on his sword and taking Smiley with him. Some time later, government gonk Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) brings Smiley back from the cold and asks him to take over his former boss’s investigation, operating in total secrecy from outside the bureaucratic Circus with only loyal company-man Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him. At the same time, rogue junior spy Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) returns to London from a mission in Istanbul brimming with new information that might offer a clue to the mole’s identity but also makes him a target.

All the major plot points from le Carré’s source novel have been retained in the screenplay by Peter Straughan and his wife, the late Bridget O’Connor, which skilfully condenses a lengthy, labyrinthine book into two hours of riveting storytelling. The plot reshuffles some of the novel’s events, changes a few locations and invents a few new scenes, but for le Carré fans, the fundamentals are all there. There are films where hopes are formed, only to be dashed, where early promises are not kept and where a meticulous construction collapses as the last few bricks are put in place. This is not one of those films. Even more remarkably, Alfredson has pared the dialogue back to a minimum, using his actor’s expressive faces and some inspired directorial grace notes to communicate the story visually. An extended set-piece where Cumberbatch’s Guillam charms his way into the service’s secret file room to smuggle out vital documents plays out in almost total silence, capturing the essence of breathless suspense in an extraordinarily nimble balance between success and failure. A moment when we watch a train junction shift into place as Smiley puts the pieces of the puzzle together is immensely satisfying and says more in a moment than a page of lines, however cleverly written and beautifully delivered.

From a first-rate cast made up of the best British and Irish acting talent available, Oldman gives a stand-out performance; delicately shaded, masterfully controlled, flitting from light to shadow like some grey-winged moth. With his oversized glasses and buttoned-up trench-coat, Smiley maintains a careful anonymity but his poker-face hides a razor-sharp intellect with a ruthless edge. Oldman has featured in two of the biggest film franchises of the last decade – Christopher Nolan’s Batman series and the Harry Potter saga – but there’s a lingering impression that he rarely takes the lead. Well, he takes it here. He grabs it with both hands. This is a superb performance, a master class in understatement and the management of expression and silence.

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre has proven a popular and enduring subject for cinematic adaptation, being seen more than a dozen times from hand-wringing silent-era melodramas to Robert Stevenson’s swooning 1940s romance and a trio of BBC television miniseries, the most recent in 2006.

For this handsome interpretation of the literary classic Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga and his screenwriter Moira Buffini have streamlined the book’s chaptered chronology into a clever and effective non-linear structure. The story opens right in the middle as frantic Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) stumbles over a windswept moor, escaping some dread fate. Rescued by upstanding, mutton-chopped pastor St John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his adoring sisters, Jane begins to recount her life in flashback; detailing her orphaned childhood, her early life with her cruel aunt (Sally Hawkins) in a remote mansion house and her subsequent removal to a grim boarding school run by the gimlet-eyed Mr Brocklehurst (Simon McBurney). As Jane explains where she has come from we come to know something about her character: she is modest, intelligent, strong-willed and direct.

Years pass at the school and Jane is trained to become a governess. She finds her first job as tutor to a young French girl named Adele at Thornfield House, a rambling stately pile in the middle of nowhere. There she is met by the kindly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax (Judi Dench), who makes her welcome and explains the unusual structure of the household. The master of Thornfield Mr Rochester (Michael Fassbender), only mentioned in passing, spends most of his time away from the house on business. Months of routine solitude pass before the gruff Rochester returns to the house where, over the course of a year or more, he falls in love with plain-speaking Jane. Despite the rigours of the class system and Mrs Farifax’s tutting adherence to protocol, she falls in love with him. But there is more to Rochester than his polished appearance would suggest and just as Jane seems to have finally met her destiny, a long-hidden secret threatens to spoil her happiness.

Fukunaga sets his Jane Eyre apart from all the other adaptations by casting the film with young actors, more accurately reflecting Brontë’s original descriptions and giving the romantic strains a fresh tremble. The heart of the story remains Jane’s anguished love for Rochester with Wasikowska and Fassbender making for an mutedly charismatic romantic couple, her forthright humility and independence set against his brash arrogance and cynical sense of entitlement. What the story lacks, perhaps unsurprisingly after decades of retelling, is any element of emotional suspense with the adaptation’s more arch Gothic passions being dampened to better allow the characters to smoulder.

Photographed in painterly candlelight by Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman, emphasising the house’s claustrophobic gloom beneath scurrying grey skies, and scored with a haunting soundtrack from Dario Marianelli, Fukunaga’s Jane Eye is subtly shaded and evocatively understated, reanimating Brontë’s timeless story for a new generation.

The Skin I Live In

Having made his debut in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1982 farce Labyrinth of Passion and made his name in 1988s Oscar-nominated black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, before decamping to Hollywood and international celebrity, Antonia Banderas reunites with the Spanish auteur for The Skin I Live In. Loosely based on Thierry Jonquet’s French novella Tarantula, the film is a gloriously florid melodrama with shades of inky horror that includes all of Almodovar’s trademark motifs; sexual desire, betrayal, confused identity, grief and long-simmering revenge.

The film opens with operatic images of a mysterious, beautiful woman performing yoga-like stretches while clad in a flesh-coloured body-stocking. She is Vera (Elena Anaya), who lives in a starkly appointed room at the top of a mansion owned by Banderas’ Dr Robert Ledgard, a noted plastic surgeon. Having established his own clinic at the house, Ledgard has devoted years to developing a plastic skin, impervious to the effects of fire, spurred on by the death of his wife in a car accident. Vera is his muse and test subject, her body being reformed under his scalpel as he perfects his techniques.

Despite being captive in the house, or perhaps for that very reason, Vera has fallen in love with the Doctor and, after years of standing aloof, it seems that Frankenstein has begun to feel the same way about his home-made monster. Ledgard’s devoted housekeeper Marilla (Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes) is not keen on this development, and regularly chides her employer for his foolishness, but the Doctor doesn’t care to listen. Events come to a head when Marilla’s fugitive son Zeca (Roberto Álamo) arrives at the front door, triggering a violent series of events that begins to unravel the past and causes Ledgard’s forensically composed façade to crack. The narrative swings back and forth across the years, the still-ringing echoes of the past driving his characters actions in the present.

And that’s about all I’m going to say about the plot. The Skin I Live In holds a secret, a stunning, audacious twist so delicate and monumental that even revealing that it exists at all might spoil the film for the audience. To reveal any more would draw a map through Almodóvar’s serpentine plot and cast a light on his dark obsessions. Forewarned is not always forearmed at the picture house, and going into the film expecting to have everything turn head-over-heels at any time might distract the viewer from the director’s almost-Gothic economy and austerity. Forget I mentioned it.

Returning to Spain for the first time in twenty years, a revitalised Banderas casts off the shackles of his Latin-lover persona to deliver a wholly engrossing performance as the obsessive surgeon, neat and precise in everything he does but hiding deep, dark shadows behind his hooded eyes. Having had a small part in Almodóvar’s Talk To Her, Anaya is a revelation in the leading role, whether posed in a series of achingly beautiful close-ups or wild-eyed and dangerous in sudden, unexpected ways. A highlight – as with many of Almodóvar’s films – is a couple of powerful live musical numbers from the Spanish singer Concha Buika that swell the already swooning mood into something approaching hysteria.