The backers of this British spy thriller let the right one in when they hired Swedish director Tomas Alfredson.
18 Jan 2012 - 4:05 PM  UPDATED 30 Jul 2020 - 11:50 AM

Tomas Alfredson, the director of the upcoming British movie adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is yet another success story to come out of Sweden. He'd now like to use his recognition to make an international film at home.

“I really missed being there, and working there,” admits the 46- year-old father of two. He could of course cast Alexander or Stellan Skarsgård. “Or Colin Firth!” he says hopefully.

Firth, who has first to make The Railway Man for the Australian Burning Man director Jonathan Teplitzky, bonded with Alfredson when they made Tinker Tailor, as did the director with all his high profile cast. Alfredson says he chose prominent actors so they would be instantly recognisable amidst the labyrinthine plot.

Most prominently, there's Gary Oldman as George Smiley (the role made famous by Alec Guinness in the 1979 mini-series), rising young stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy, and John Hurt, the only member of the cast who was of adult age during the '70s when Le Carre's spy thriller is set.

“It was very clever, very perceptive of Working Title to decide on Tomas,” Hurt says, “because by choosing somebody who is not British gives the opportunity to look at the subject objectively. I think that's a massive benefit for the film. It's like John Schlesinger doing Midnight Cowboy and giving a completely different view of New York. A British director somehow suited it brilliantly, showing the loneliness of this poor sod wandering around. I did a film called The Shout with Jerzy Skolimowski and it was a bizarre look at English country life from a Pole's point of view. It's always very interesting.”

Based on a screenplay by the husband and wife team of Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, Tinker Tailor mostly takes place in the British spy headquarters called the Circus, though scenes were also shot in Istanbul and Budapest, where the botched operation that propels the action takes place. There's a spy amongst the upper echelons of M16, and Smiley, who had been retired over the incident, is brought back to ferret him out.

“It's set in 1973 and the backdrop is the Cold War, which is quite useful for a drama,” explains Alfredson, “but I think the main themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal are quite timeless. We didn't try to make it nostalgic. We responded to the book, which I think is about the victims of that war and the human cost. I think it's the best of all of le Carre's novels.” (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is actually le Carre's favourite while Tinker Tailor comes second.)

Naturally, Alfredson was nervous when meeting the author, whose real name, David John Moore Cornwell, is typically English. “Bridget and I went together and at first he seemed quite stern and forbidding and I was quite scared. We met in the morning and when it got to lunchtime he said, 'I have booked a table around the corner'. So we went to this bar and he started drinking good bottles of wine and then it was fine after that. He was incredibly charming and he just relaxed. I think he was nervous about the project as well. It's a very important book to him and he wanted to do what he could to help us get it right. After that he was generous and supportive – and also hands off.”

Of course, before 1963's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold became an international bestseller, le Carre's day job had been working with the British Intelligence services, M15 and M16. He was able to provide invaluable background for the film.

“He remembers everything, he's like a living encyclopedia,” explains Alfredson. “I could call him about anything, the devices and the format of the papers and how this and that would look. The only thing that I think is not reflecting the reality is the open spaces in MI6, which is something we created just because it's interesting to watch. It's very boring to watch corridors with closed doors, which was the reality.”

The party scene was not in the novel either and was devised to present all the characters together. “David told us the story about there being a Christmas party they had one year at MI5 that got out of hand. People started throwing boxes out the window and the police were called.”

An affable 36-year-old who today wears large horn-rimmed spectacles, Alfredson grew up with a famous comedian and filmmaker father, Hans Hassie Alfredson, whom he rarely saw. In order to see him, he would visit his father's film sets over the summers. In his adulthood he would follow in his father's footsteps, directing more for television.

“I was a very slow starter,” he says of his rise to prominence, “though I have been directing film, television and theatre for 20 years. These two films are just the ones that have reached out internationally.”

Alfredson had been one of many who had approached John Ajvide Lindqvist to turn his novel, Let the Right One In, into a film. Ultimately, the author wrote the screenplay for the film, which touched a chord with general audiences as it drew on universal themes. Cleverly, it crossed genres as a horror story focusing on pre-teen love.

Naturally, Hollywood wanted to do a remake. Yet when Cloverfield director Matt Reeves wrote and directed the renamed Let Me In starring Australia's Kodi Smit-McPhee, it was far from a success. Now, as David Fincher's well-reviewed big budget version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has struggled to find an audience (in the US at least, it's doing okay here so far) perhaps the idea of re-making hugely successful Swedish thrillers when the original is still fresh in peoples' minds is not the best idea. Certainly Alfredson was of this belief when the remake of his film went ahead.

“I never saw it,” he now admits. “I think I felt a little jealous. You work with material for several years and you almost wear yourself out and then this remake was done almost immediately after my version. So I didn't feel comfortable with it. But that is just a personal thing. I got over it.”


Watch 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

Friday 7 August, 9:35pm on SBS World Movies
Sunday 9 August, 12:30am on SBS World Movies

UK, 2011
Genre: Thriller
Language: English
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon McBurney

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