In “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the new spy thriller (opening locally Friday) based on the John le Carré novel and starring Gary Oldman, the devil’s in the details. So much so that Swedish director Tomas Alfredson invited Oldman to preproduction meetings, the kind that actors usually don’t attend.
“I’ve never, ever been to a session with props until I met Tomas,” Oldman says. “But the watch, the lighter, the mints, the briefcase, all of that — they are often conversations you don’t have with the director; the propmaster comes to you and you pick out your watch or whatever. But [here], they were vital conversations, because cuff links could give you away” as an enemy agent.
Those small details are the essence of Oldman’s character, George Smiley, a senior spy in a division of MI6 (that’s the British CIA) known only has “The Circus.” After being forced into a semi-disgraceful retirement, Smiley is secretly brought back in to root out a mole among the other top men. The film is a tense, intellectual exercise that’s like a game of chess where the loser ends up quietly, mysteriously dead — and completely unlike those movies featuring the world’s most famous British spy.
“This reflects reality,” says Alfredson, best known for the stylish vampire film “Let the Right One In.” “James Bond is great entertainment, but it’s a fairy tale.”
Part of that Bondian myth is the “find bad guy, kill bad guy” mentality that not only dominates spy films, but any film about a man and his enemy.
“Here’s the thing,” says Oldman. “You’re a policeman, and you’re chasing a bad guy, and you corner him and he’s shooting at you, and you shoot back and you kill him. Or you hunt down a bad guy and he goes through the justice system and he goes to jail. When you hunt down your prey in the spy world, you didn’t put him in jail, and you didn’t shoot him. You turned him to come over to your side. You don’t use guns.”
Smiley’s singularity of purpose comes from a combination of personal drive and patriotism, Alfredson says. “He’s a 100 percent loyal person. He’s 100 percent loyal to his wife, and to queen and country. It’s just …”
“Moral certainty,” Oldman cuts in. “I think of George as a bit like a spider in the sense that he is over here on the web and he feels a little twitch on the thread, but he doesn’t have to run and get his dinner. He’ll take his time. He’ll get to it.”