Spy Versus Spy
Director Tomas Alfredson recruits Brits Gary Oldman and Colin Firth for his adaptation of John Le Carré’s classic espionage novel, 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'.
Paranoia...it's something that you might expect from an adaptation of John Le Carré's masterly Cold War novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But there was one other criteria that director Tomas Alfredson demanded: the smell of wet tweed. "We tried to encapsulate paranoia and wet tweed," he says, his face poker-straight, his eyes unblinking behind a pair of cartoon-ish thick-rimmed glasses. "The goal was to create this feeling and that smell." And, short of providing the film with a scratch'n'sniff card, this is exactly what he's done.
As odd as it sounds, it makes perfect sense. What better evokes the decade that style forgot than such a dank, lingering odour? That, and the shit-brown or nicotine-yellow walls that seem to dominate the decor. A year of IRA bombs, national strikes, and sky-high inflation - such is the uncanny recreation of 1973 Britain that you'd think that Alfredson (the Swedish director behind the hit vampire film, Let The Right One In) had spent his childhood there, and not in his native Stockholm.
Still, shot largely on a disused army barracks outside of London - with just brief sojourns to Budapest and Istanbul - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is no mere exercise in style. Set around the search for a Soviet mole in the British intelligence services, "the film is really a human story," says Colin Firth, marking his first film role since his Oscar winning turn in The King's Speech. "What we're looking at is the effect that suspicion, trust and doubt have on human beings. You see the loneliness, desperation and vulnerability of these men, who depend entirely on each other."
By "these men", of course, he means the employees of MI6 - or "The Circus" as Le Carré dubs it. With a traitor among their ranks, the suspicion falls on four men - Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik) - though it is left to the ice-cool George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to root out the spy. A character in many of Le Carré's early novels, it was with the 1974 publication of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that Smiley moved from being peripheral to prominent. But it was only with the 1979 BBC TV adaptation that the character - then played by Alec Guinness - became a household name.
As the lynchpin of the story, casting the watchful Smiley had to come first. "It wasn't easy," says Alfredson. "It took ten months to crack it. We almost said, ‘What the hell! Let's not do this. We can't find the right guy.' Then producer Tim Bevan came up with this idea to ask Gary. And it was perfect." In some ways, Oldman was not an obvious choice; from Sex Pistols rocker Sid Vicious to his insane villains in films like Leon (aka The Professional), The Fifth Element and Air Force One, the 53-year-old actor has "played a lot of characters that are frenetic and high-octane people", as he puts it. Playing the taciturn Smiley was another matter. "It was quite a relief to hold it all in, and keep it all at a quiet level," he admits.
Indeed, the strength of Alfredson's film lies in its casting, with a wealth of British acting talent fleshing out the characters that populate The Circus and orbit around the ever-watchful Smiley. Alfredson admits that it was vital to use recognisable faces. "I had to help the audience to navigate in this big cast that we had. I usually try to think how Herge did his casting in Tintin," Alfredson says, his face still poker-straight. "He's a genius in casting. You immediately find and remember the characters."
Oldman is also satisfied with Alfredson as director. "It's quite an ingenious idea to have him direct this movie, because a British director could've made it a little too sentimental and a bit nostalgic. Tomas doesn't bring that to it, because he's not a Brit. And I think, possibly, that the television series suffered from that. It was all a bit of a cozy British affair."
Firth also sees the film in very different terms to its predecessor. "What's brilliant here, in terms of what's been set up, is that it isn't a whodunit...this didn't strike me when I watched the television series. I was much more connected with the intrigue. This time what struck me is, if there's a mole in the system, that means that somebody I care about is not who I thought they were. That means everything that I've invested in so far might be false. It's personal..."
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is released January 19. This is an excerpt from a story that ran in our Jan/Feb issue, out now. The full story (with making-of videos) can also be found in the second edition of FilmInk for the iPad. Download it here.