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Tinkering with John Le Carre

Make a list of those who’ve had a hand in the entertainment world’s vampire vogue and you’ll probably put Tomas Alfredson near the top. The Swedish filmmaker directed “Let the Right One In,” the 2008 hit about a relationship between a bullied boy and the young-looking vampire Eli that turned even skeptics into believers.

Yet ask the 46-year-old about his influence on, or interest in, the bloodsucker bonanza and you’ll get a shrug. “I haven’t really seen any vampire movies, except maybe a few Bela Lugosi movies when I was a kid,” Alfredson said. “I haven’t seen any of the ‘Twilight’ films or read any of the books.”

In fact, in what may come as a surprise to many fans, he averred that “I don’t really see Eli as a vampire.”

As he cuts neatly into an omelet at breakfast on a recent Sunday, Alfredson wears a pensive expression. It was in this city, exactly 3 years ago, that his career took a dramatic turn: He went from unknown and slightly depressive Scandinavian director to a global (though perhaps still slightly depressive) filmmaking hero. “Let the Right One In” burst on the American scene when it played New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and won its top prize. The movie went on to appear on many U.S. critics’ year-end lists and was named the best horror film of the decade by a top blog. English-language remake rights were hotly auctioned off, with a film eventually made by J.J. Abrams’ creative partner Matt Reeves.

Now the director has made a rare trip to the U.S. to promote his new movie, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” his first in the English language. Based on John le Carre’s complex Cold War novel from nearly four decades ago and starring British stalwarts Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy, the film is Alfredson’s carefully chosen follow-up to “Let the Right One In” and the next of what you might term his don’t-call-it-a-genre-film genre films.
Colin Firth stars as “Bill Haydon” in Focus Features release of Tomas Alfredson’s, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Courtesy Jack English/MCT)
Colin Firth stars as “Bill Haydon” in Focus Features release of Tomas Alfredson’s, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Courtesy Jack English/MCT)

“For me ‘Tinker Tailor’ is not really a spy movie,” the director said. “It’s a film about friendship and loyalty, and the personal costs for soldiers in the Cold War.”

In a time when a certain kind of high-end director likes to take a familiar genre and turn it on its head ― witness Christopher Nolan’s reinvention of the superhero film ― Alfredson fits right in. He’s also a particular sort of moody auteur ― while most directors just want to stay busy (and many look to jump to Hollywood films after an independent success), Alfredson is willing to wait years for what he thinks is the right film, and wants to make that film how, when and where he wants. (He pretty much knows that he doesn’t want to shoot a movie in or near Los Angeles. “You get used to your favorite chair and slippers,” he said, perhaps only half-kidding.)

“Tinker Tailor” may be one of the more difficult spy movies ever made, an elliptical story told with a throwback visual sensibility, extreme quiet and a storyline that is more allusive than linear. Faced with an overly familiar genre (and a classic 1979 miniseries based on the same book, which starred Alec Guinness in a spectacular performance), Alfredson decided to make a sharp left turn, creating a movie that can feel like an abstract painting.

The 1973-set narrative tells of George Smiley (played by Oldman with a furrowed, world-weary brow), an agent called out of retirement to help track down a mole in the British secret intelligent service. Hopping from London to Istanbul to Budapest, as well as jumping back and forth in time, the movie shows men in a drab, colorless world who harbor rich secrets and quietly shifting loyalties. There’s nary a woman to be found. Dialogue is measured out carefully, as though with a beaker. Compared with “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the pace verges on the somnolent.

It would be hard not to admire the ambition of this “Tinker Tailor.” It might also be hard for some to understand it. After a recent press screening, several journalists stood in the parking structure and tried to puzzle it out, while others gave up and fled to their cars.

“There are people who will say ‘I didn’t understand it, I didn’t get it.’ And that’s fine,” Alfredson said of the film, which was made by the upscale British company Working Title and is being released in this country by Focus Features. “We tried to give as little information as possible. When you create music or theater or film that fits everyone, the quality and the personal touch can get lost.

“I’m really happy that I’m surrounded by (producers) who are very” ― he paused ― “brave.”

Although he says that the Cold War setting was secondary to the movie’s themes of loyalty and friendship, Alfredson wanted to give “Tinker Tailor” a distinct period look. He hoped to evoke his first trip to London, which also occurred in 1973. The director got producers to agree, and they all sat down to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” that touchstone of 1970s paranoia.

“We didn’t want to make a film that was just (set) in the 1970s but one that felt like the 1970s,” said producer Robyn Slovo, adding that even though the movie is a throwback, she too believes its themes are timeless. “‘Tinker Tailor’ is a very nondigital film, lots of texture, lots of grays. It’s an analog movie in a lot of ways, really.”

The director can seem like a bit of an analog man himself; even his casual comments have a certain old-school quality. Oldman said that at a recent panel discussion someone asked the director about his film’s palette. Recalled the actor: “He said he wanted to capture ‘the smell of damp tweed.’ When do you hear a director talk like that?”

By Steven Zeitchik

(Los Angeles Times)

(MCT Information Services)
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