Tomas Alfredson‘s directorial follow-up to the beloved Let the Right One In is, on the outside, appears to be a drastically different film. Taken at face value, Let the Right One In is about a boy following in love with a vampire and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is about the search for a high-powered government mole. Digging deeper, both films are startlingly, but beautifully similar. They’re stories about repressed loners, even down to the smallest of characters and the most intimate of moments.
At the center of the lonely bunch is George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman, in an all internal and “it’s-in-the-eyes” performance. Very few spies are as emasculated, cold, and unsuave as Smiley & Co. Unlike the Bonds and Bournes of the spy world, by the end of this film, no one will wish they were these characters of the Circus.
A few weeks ago I had a chance to sit down with both Alfredson and Oldman for a quick interview where we discussed the paranoia-causing structure of the film, the gray enigma of George Smiley, and how much politer British spies are.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers.
I’ve actually seen the film three times now.
TA: Are you still confused? [Laughs]
[Laughs] I was a little shaky on the first viewing, but I think you find a lot of great little details that help on second and third viewing.
TA: Oh, good.
Did you always intended for it to be a film like that, one that takes a few viewings to soak in?
TA: It was not the intention to make it as difficult as possible to understand, no. The piece of the charm of this genre and John le Carré‘s work is that it is complicated and almost like you get paranoid yourself — you yourself become an investigator, with the material. I think our struggle was to make as much images as possible out of the actions referred to in the flashbacks and the present story. It’s very inspiring to hear how different people have seen the film. I think it’s fantastic to hear what people actually see in it.
GO: There was a guy the other night at the Q&A who was talking about the color red. I mean, there’s the nicotine-y kind of brown, the oranges, and things. Like you said [referring to Alfredson], you have an almost neutral palette. The guy was seeing red in every frame, and he asked if it was the threat of Communism and Russia, and whether it was a subliminal kind of thing you wanted to do.
TA: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
GO: But he saw that, so that’s not wrong.
TA: It’s not wrong, it’s what he saw.
That’s a good reading of it. The film actually reminded me of Let the Right One In. Underneath the genre stappings, it’s sort of this dark ensemble love story about loners, even with minor characters. Did you both approach the material that way?
GO: I think that’s how we both responded to the material and the book, and I think that’s why it’s had longevity. John le Carré doesn’t always get into the whole philosophical kind of polemic, it’s not overloaded with that. It’s about very lonely, fractured, and sometimes desperate people. It’s an emotional story.
Throughout the film there’s always this quiet determination to Smiley. When we first see him, he’s very emasculated, with losing his wife and his job. By searching for the mole, is he trying to prove something to himself or to others?
TA: My reading would be to others. I think he’s a 100% loyal in working for Queen and country. He’s from a generation that experienced the war. It’s nothing of the self-obsessed generation of today who goes to shrinks, complains, or, like you said, your mother never complains, so she must be from that generation. I think George is exactly like that. It’s the Queen, the country, his wife, and his friends. What he is about to see is what his friend has done not only to his wife, but to the country.
GO: The empire, yeah.
TA: As the mole says, at the end of the film, “You knew it was me all along, didn’t you?” I think that’s right, I think the mole is right. George did know who it was, and it’s one of the toughest things for him to accept.
GO: Again, you can interpret it. We believe George knows who it is before he lets the audience know who it is before the reveal. Here’s the thing, people say, “You’re very quiet and very still, but there’s a lot going on.” When we meet him, he’s been forced into retirement and he’s got the wife who’s another chip away at the stone, and God knows how many times he’s been through that. When he really keys and zeros in on Bill Haydon, before we know he really has, then he’s carrying that around. Yeah, there is a sadness and melancholy to him.
You get a sense, even with that brokenness to George and everyone else in the Circus, they’re very capable violence, despite never using it.
GO: Yeah, they would’ve been trained.
TA: Yeah, in an old fashioned way, if George would confront someone, it would be like this [note: Alfredson and Oldman quickly reenact this scene]. [Laughs] He would do it like a gentlemen, but he would be able to do it. He knows how to use a revolver, but he also knows how effective he could talk people into stuff. In a broader sense, a gun is something you wouldn’t use very often. I asked John le Carré if he would ever use torture, who said, “No, never. Why would we? You don’t do that to people, you have to be nice and proper. Secondly, the information you would retrieve through torture would be useless.”
GO: And it’s very British. If you just take the fact Germany started the war, it was their fault, and they invaded Poland, then that was the beginning of it. We countered and joined the war against them, fascism, and the whole thing. In turn, we bombed the hell out of them. And then we went, gave them money, and helped build their society up. It’s a very sort of British thing, “We won the war, so now we’ll help you out.”
TA: “Come on, can I help you?” [Laughs]
GO: I think George shows his colors. Also, Haydon’s sex is obviously ambiguous. Well, he’s obviously a bisexual, probably leaning more to homosexual. [Pause] I lost my train of thought…
TA: You’re maybe aiming for the ending scene? Where Bill says, “There’s a girl and a boy, can you help me?” They’re two polite gentlemen. Here Smiley is in front of the mole, and they’re speaking very politely to each other.
GO: In a way, it’s like Haydon is empty in that end scene. He’s crying, but is he really crying? Maybe they caressed him a bit, but he says he doesn’t mind the tears, just the excitement. Look at what Smiley’s feeling, who isn’t crying, despite what he’s carrying. At the end of it, to top it off, he turns and says, “Is there anything you want me to tell Ann?” He cares about Ann, but it’s so bloody British. Nowadays we’d wanna do a fistfight [Laughs]. I love the fact he asks if there’s anything in the particurally he wants to tell Ann.
That final scene where you see George get Ann back and sits at the head of the Circus table is kind of a funny scene, with how it’s a bit of a hollow victory. By the end, does George really win anything?
TA: Order has been reinstored. There is some —
I should clarify and say if he achieves anything on an emotional level.
TA: Right. I’m not sure that seat he enters, in the end, is for him.
GO: No, no, he takes over temporarily, just to sort of tidy things up.
TA: There are needles on that chair, when he sits down. In that way, it’s not a happy ending.
GO: And Ann’s back, for now.
At one point Rickie Tarr says, “I don’t wanna end up like you bunch.” Despite knowing what their lives are, is he still destined to end up like George, Bill, and Jim?
GO: Yeah, I think he means it. I know Tomas screened the film at MI6, for the real guys, and, on a scale of one to ten, that line was an eleven.
TA: They all understood it.
GO: They all understood exactly what he said. I mean, the personal sacrifices must be, you know, very tough to think about.
I think that ties in well with this line Jim has, where he says to the boy, “Loners are the best watchers.”
TA: Yeah, that is what Jim Prideaux says to that kid, who he knows is the type of person who would be drawn into that world.
GO: Yeah, good spy material.
TA: When he says to the kid, “Go out and play with the others,” he’s rescuing him.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is now in theaters.