After breaking out with the startlingly poetic vampire film, Let the Right One In, Swedish auteur Tomas Alfredson shifted gears and embraced English to adapt John le Carré’s canonical novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, to the screen. Largely set in England in 1973, the film features a who’s-who of British talent, including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, and Gary Oldman, as career spy George Smiley.
How is a film about the Cold War relevant today?
I’m not especially interested or educated in the Cold War. Nor vampirism. For me it’s trying to find stories that are suitable for film and that make you shiver. For me this is was a story about faith, to be faithful, and a nuanced look at friendship and fidelity. So, the Cold War thing, it’s an interesting era and period and a good backdrop for a story because it’s very black and white, but everything in front of it is kaleidoscopic.
For an adaptation of a book, your film is surprisingly quiet. Do you worry that it’s too subtle?
Working on a foreign-language film forced me to find different expressions besides the lingual. We tried to do that with Let the Right One In as well, to do it as a silent movie, where the dialogue adds just a poetic layer to the story. You could actually turn off the sound on Let the Right One In and understand what happens. It wouldn’t be possible with this film but I try to create as much silence as possible. Too many films, at least for me, I know what’s going to happen in every scene. It’s so boring to watch things where everything is clarified. The most interesting thing is to create a dialogue. I give you 10 suggestions for this scene, work it out for yourself.
One suggestion seems to be that the state ultimately crushes the individual.
As George Smiley says in the film, you have to conceal your doubts, which can be quite expensive [laughs]. For Peter Guillam as well, who, in the film, is homosexual. It was actually forbidden to be homosexual in those days because you would expose yourself for blackmailing in the secret service.
Whose decision was it to make Guillam gay?
The idea was mine, because I read so much about it, and John le Carré also said that this environment, the spy world, was a very homosexual environment. Those men were very trained in concealing their identity, so therefore they were very good at what they did. When we discussed it, John thought it was a great idea to make him gay.
You cleverly use Smiley’s glasses to establish time in the film. I heard that finding the right pair was a bit of an odyssey.
Yes. Gary Oldman is so used to having Dracula teeth and extra legs or whatever it is that he sort of panicked a couple of weeks before we started because you become so naked when you have almost nothing to say. You’re just listening, observing, to be a person that is supposed to be someone that everyone would forget immediately after seeing him. So it was a huge responsibility for him to do this character and for whatever reason, he focused on these glasses. He tried thousands. We went together to different opticians. “Yeah this is it.” And then he’d call me the next day. “I have to look at more pairs.” It just kept on and on. I think he found them in Los Angeles, in his own neighborhood! But they’re great. They have a lot of screen time, so you should be picky. And we used them a lot, as you say, we also have angles that are three-quarter profile, so we see through the glass as if we were his eyes. Yes, they’re very important.