John le Carre’s classic 1974 novel rewrote the notion of what a spy story could be, and was made into a terrific BBC miniseries in 1979, with an acclaimed performance by Alec Guinness.
It centers on Smiley, an aging English spymaster forced into retirement by careerist departmental mechanisms, but later secretly brought back to help root out a high-ranking mole in British Intelligence.
Set in the real-life world of Cold War espionage (a world le Carre personally took part in during the ’50s and ’60s), there are no car chases, no real shootouts, and no tech gadgets. Instead, the novel and the film are about real humans playing complex, dangerous spy games while navigating political bureaucracies, personal ambitions, and emotional manipulations. It’s also a very complicated story, full of moving parts, secret motivations, arcane spy slang, and cagey characters who–unlike Bond villains–keep their plans to themselves.
(If you’ve never read le Carre’s novel or seen the BBC TV version, it might help before going in to check out this handy online (spoiler-free) guide to TTSS and Smiley’s world to get some useful background on who Karla and Control are, what The Circus is, and what a Scalphunter does.)
Swedish director Tomas Alfredson grabbed international attention in 2008 with his brilliant, atmospheric vampire movie Let the Right One In. Here working from a script by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor, Alfredson streamlines some of the novel’s complex plotlines, but he maintains a compelling, even riveting low-key tone–not everything is explained, and you have to pay attention to keep up, but that extra effort becomes part of the film’s appeal and reward.
It doesn’t hurt that in addition to the brilliant Oldman (playing Smiley in soft-spoken contrast to his usual rafter-shaking characters), the film boasts strong performances from Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones, and more.
Last month I and several other Chicago film writers, including Brian Tallerico of HollywoodChicago, Nick Allen of The Scorecard Review and Peter Sobczynski of eFilmCritic, sat down with the Swedish-born Alfredson to talk about this newest version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Le Carre’s novel was originally adapted by the BBC in 1979 and your own film adaptation Let the Right One was remade in America as Let Me In. What’s your feeling about remakes?
Tomas Alfredson: I really don’t consider Tinker Tailor a remake, but I think you can remake stuff if you have an interesting take. John le Carre said in the beginning, “Please don’t do the book–it already exists, it’s a great book and if you make a crappy film, the book is still good. So try to do your own take on this and surprise me.” It was a great thing to hear.
Alfredson: Working with Gary has been very joyful. He is an extremely, how should one say, “concentrated” person at work. And we had an almost telepathic relationship–we could just nod, we didn’t have to have long intellectual discussions about what was happening.
There is a montage in the beginning of the film where we see a newly retired Smiley doing different stuff, and there is a scene we didn’t include in the final film, where Smiley fries an egg, which is a very boring thing to do.
I let the film roll for two minutes of him frying an egg, in his wife’s apron, and when I said, “cut” Gary came to my place behind the monitor and watched the replay, and he said to me, “I used to be Sid Vicious.”
What made you think Oldman would be the perfect Smiley, especially following in Guinness’ footsteps?
Alfredson: I clearly understood we shouldn’t look for someone who looked like Alec Guinness. That would be a strange way of approaching the task. Smiley is described as anyone’s uncle, someone you would immediately forget if you saw him on the street, and to have that as a leading part in a big film, it’s a contradiction.
But the big trick is he should play dull, not be dull. If you look what Gary’s done up to today, it’s a fantastic palate of so many different colors, and I thought he would be the perfect person for the part. It takes a lot of guts to actually go around doing nothing and not reacting, you need a lot of experience and daring to do that.
It’s a very complex but subtle story. How did you balance out how much information to give the audience about who’s who and what’s going on and how much to make them work at keeping it straight?
Alfredson: Well, for me the trick was to leave some information and then to create some space for the audience to chew and to swallow and to digest. If you give a lot of information to the viewer and then start describing new information, you get lost because they haven’t digested it all yet. So the trick was to find that pace.
You not only had Gary Oldman, but this big cast of talented actors: Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, and more. Was it hard to meld them all together in terms of their screen chemistry?
Alfredson: These are all very talented people, and they share the the British tradition of working—you get what you ask for. In Sweden we want consensus, so we work together and we discuss and ask, “what do you think?’ and, “what’s your point of view?” In Britain if I wanted to do this and this and this, they’d do it immediately. So as the director, if it’s not good it’s your fault.
Obviously this film does not have the action of say a Bond or Bourne or Mission: Impossible film, but it’s also done in very muted colors. How did you come up with the visual style?
Alfredson: The approach of director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema and I was to create a voyeurism in all the scenes—the feeling that everything is peeked in upon, like you are seeing it through outside windows or a keyhole. We also wanted to create the sense that these people are captured in bubbles.
So we worked with very long lenses to squeeze everything together. And we tried to recall our own memories and images from that period and the beginning of the 70’s, of post war England.
Has there been any discussion of adapting le Carre’s other Smiley books? [The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People]
Alfredson: Yes there has, but we should do it one step at a time and see what happens with this one–mature the project properly, and do it for the right reasons. But I think as a spontaneous idea, everyone involved would love to do it.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is playing in select theaters across the country and will be expanding to more in coming weeks.