The Director of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy': 'It's a Demanding Film'

An interview with Tomas Alfredson about his adaptation of John le Carré’s best-selling novel

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Jack English

The new adaptation of espionage author John le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an unhurried, elliptical work that stands out in this age of frenzied thrillers.

It’s been helmed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, whose similarly subdued adolescent vampire romance Let the Right One In (2008) earned major accolades while inspiring an acclaimed American remake. So it’s no surprise that the story of George Smiley (Gary Oldman) investigating a Soviet mole at the top of MI6 is rendered in pauses and close-up shots: It explores the burdens of silence and the mysteries in what’s left unsaid.

Gone from this adaptation, written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, are the genre’s usual propulsive narrative techniques, like the fast-moving action scene. Instead, there’s a general sense that the filmmaker wants you to do the work, to make the connections that foster an understanding of the combustible shared history of Smiley and his cohorts.

Here, Alfredson speaks about his attraction to the material, the process of assembling his all-star cast (Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy are among the many notables) and more. The film opens in Los Angeles and New York today, and heads to wider release in the weeks to come.

What drew you to the material, especially given that the novel already had been brought to the screen in an acclaimed miniseries?

It was the book itself, of course. And also I remember the miniseries, when I must have been 10, 11-years old, seeing it. I didn’t understand much of it, but it was a very intriguing and interesting world to watch. It was also the people that wanted to do it with me, the production company and Mr. le Carré himself.

"It is a demanding film. I want it to be demanding."

What about the draw of making a quiet, subtle spy thriller?

I don’t consider this a spy thriller, really. It’s much more about the victims of the Cold War and the sacrifices they made. That was what interested me the most — to actually try to understand what they suffered, these people. For instance, there was a very gripping detail John le Carré described for me: Some of the spies were decorated by the Queen. She would put a medal on their chests and ten minutes afterwards someone would take it away and hide it in a cupboard. I thought that was so, so touching and cruel, and really interesting, what they had to carry.

There is a lot of interesting stuff to explore in silence. If I would, for instance, ask you a question and you don’t answer me, that is also an answer. Silence between people is a very useful cinematic element.

What would you say to the possibility that some audience members might expect something more conventional and leave the film feeling perplexed?

A lot of people involved in the making of films are obsessed with clarity. I think it’s much more interesting to invite the audience to be an active partner in creating the experience. I really love the idea of trusting the audience to look upon them as adults that can have ideas themselves of what’s happening.

It is a demanding film. I want it to be demanding. And it’s quite true to the book as well. If you compare, there are so many films that decide for you what to feel and what to think and what you see. Film can be very decisive for you, but I believe that the more open you get the more the viewer can participate. But it’s not an easy film to watch. We haven’t promised anything else.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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