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The gritty spy thriller ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ will be represented at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony in the categories Original Score, Adapted Screenplay and Best Leading Actor.
The narrative of the film centers on George Smiley; fresh from his unwanted retirement, he uses all his accrued skills and knowledge to unearth a Russian mole who has burrowed deep within MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service establishment known in the story as the Circus. “The story, at its core, is a whodunit,” says Tim Bevan of Working Title Films. “Who is the double agent? But that core spirals into helixes, and the story moves through a couple of different periods of time.
Make it too simple, and you under-represent the story’s complexities. But make it too complicated, and you distance everybody. It’s been a real balancing act. “What’s as relevant now as it was thirty-odd years ago, and will be in a hundred years’ time, is how people betray one another’s trust.”
Author John Le Carré offers, “For me, this secret world was also a metaphor for the larger world in which we all live; we deceive one another, we deceive ourselves, we make up little stories, and we act life rather than live it.” Producer Robyn Slovo adds, “With its themes of deceit and betrayal, and honesty and dishonesty, this is a story about people looking into other people’s lives – while not being honest about their own lives. I feel that it’s a universal story.”
Finding a direction
While considering directors for the movie, Tim Bevan fielded a phone call from Tomas Alfredson, the Swedish filmmaker who had caught the world film community’s attention with his striking and empathetic feature ‘Let the Right One In’. Alfredson had heard that Working Title would be making ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, and so he initiated contact. A meeting was arranged. Bevan remembers, “I was expecting some trendy young Swede to come through the door. But this very big man, about my age, came in and he was quite quiet.
“I asked for his take on the material. He said, ‘Well, I think that all of the musclebound guys, they go and they join the army. And the nerds, they are the spies.’ I thought, ‘Now, there’s an angle…’”
Robyn Slovo notes, “Here is a group of men who, on the one hand, are united in their place of work, and on the other are all separate individuals who harbor separate secrets – and are all looking and watching each other. We’re spying on a spy world. This would naturally appeal to a very visually-driven director, but there would have to be a feel for the story as well.”
Bevan adds, “We were looking for a directorial vision from a confident filmmaker to firmly guide the audience through the narrative of this complex story. Tomas was a bit of an unlikely candidate, but le Carré saw Let the Right One In and said, ‘Go with him.’
“The thing about period films is that the only thing ‘period’ about them should be the look. This allows for the viewer to have more of an emotional response. The director must create a world to journey through with the audience. These approaches characterized Tomas’ work on Let the Right One In, and now would again on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
Slovo notes, “Tomas is Swedish and this is an English story, so that brings an objective perspective; we don’t go down the path of the overly familiar take.” Certainly for le Carré, who had worked with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles on the successful film version of ‘The Constant Gardener’, having a foreign filmmaker at the helm was a plus.
The author says, “As on The Constant Gardener, I thought that what we would lose in parochial Englishness we would gain in internationalism and universality. Many of the structures of British society are replicated all over the world. I think Tomas as a filmmaker brings amazing originality, and very strong onscreen ‘handwriting.’”
Alfredson remembered the 1979 miniseries, which he had watched growing up in Sweden. He recalls, “When it aired, streets were empty; everybody was watching it. The story concerned something going on that was involving and affecting the whole world, but it had nothing of the 007 style about it — it was quite different from that, almost everyday, which made it extremely interesting.” The director’s subsequent research into the era only intrigued him all the more.
He elaborates, “What many people don’t now realize is that, as a spy, you did your assignment and that was all you knew. It could be, working in a shop in Vienna for a year and writing down who goes in and who goes out of a door on the other side of the street; to do that, you would have had to learn German for months prior.
“Then you would get back and never know what it meant, but you had served your country. All you could say to family and friends was that you had been on a business trip. If you’re in such an existence too long, you can fall prey to lies and paranoia. What does it do to your morale?”
The director concedes that because le Carré’s novel “is such a cornerstone of British literature”, he did feel some pressure in taking on the assignment. “It’s scary to handle material of this magnitude,” he admits. “But you have to put that aside. If you are daring to do the job, you need to have strong connections to the material.
I suppose I understand George Smiley’s soul in some way. When I first met John le Carré, there was a very strong personal connection. It felt like I understood what he was expecting from a film, and I was very surprised that was so generous and open.
Not only in terms of sharing information and details with us for hours at a time, but also in terms of how he said, ‘Make interesting reflections of yourself.’ So I set out to try to make the images I saw in the book, and the humanity of the characters, come to the screen.”
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