Gary Oldman is very particular about his glasses. Or, at least, he was very particular about the glasses he’d be wearing as George Smiley, the iconic intelligence expert created by author John le Carré, and the central figure in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the crisp new adaptation of le Carré’s twisty espionage classic, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In).
“I drove Tomas mad,” Oldman says. “Completely crazy. I tried on more than 300 pairs of glasses. Because, to me, Smiley’s spectacles are as iconic as…well, they’re the Aston Martin to Smiley. They are as important. I was testing a few pairs in England before shooting, and I just couldn’t find the right ones. And then I found them…in Pasadena.”
After uttering that last line like a song lyric, Oldman explains how, in 2009, while driving down Sunset Boulevard, he caught a glimpse of Tinker Tailor co-star Colin Firth on a billboard for A Single Man, for which Firth rocked a pair of vintage horn rims that subsequently pervaded the movie’s marketing.
“I see this poster,” Oldman says, “and first, I think it’s Marcello Mastroianni. Then I get closer, and it’s Colin Firth. And he looks so…period, in that poster. And I thought, ’I like those glasses.’ Later, I was reading a magazine, and there was this little article about retro glasses that mentioned Colin Firth’s. It said where he got them—this place called Old Focals in Pasadena, where they carry 30,000 pairs of vintage spectacles. I went there, and saw a guy called Russ. And he had Smiley’s glasses.”
Oldman’s dogged quest to hunt down the proper old-school specs is an apt reflection of what makes Tinker Tailor tick. Breezing through New York in promotion of their film, the sharply dressed international quartet of Oldman, Firth, Alfredson, and co-screenwriter Peter Straughan all agree that the secret to the 1973-set thriller’s success is a complete, steadfast dedication to low-tech period detail, scene-setting props and gadgetry, and a comprehensive restraint found in each man’s approach to the material. It’s a sweeping cloak of a force, responsible for both pulling viewers into the meticulously realized, Cold War-era world of le Carré’s “Circus” (the code name for the British Secret Intelligence Service in and around which the story unfolds), and also keeping them at a certain distance from it, as the dense narrative offers only passing clues to the breadth of the story’s moniker-filled, Tolkien-esque lore.
“We knew from the beginning that we were going to hold true to the book in the sense that we wouldn’t spoon feed an audience,” says Straughan, who also co-penned this year’s remake of The Debt. “But it was a complicated balancing act to hold true to that without mystifying an audience completely.”
The balancing act included juggling the story’s many puzzle pieces right along with its era-specific knickknacks, tossing around references to “Karla,” “Witchcraft,” “scalphunters,” and “lamplighters,” and leaving it up to the audience to figure out how it all fits together. It also included the precise placement of deliciously subtle bits of characterization, such as a silent scene in which two characters fuss over a bee in their car, while the aloof and calmly competent Smiley, seated in the backseat, merely rolls down his window to flush the insect out—an offhand nod, also, to Smiley’s chief mission to expel an invading Soviet mole from the Circus’s top ranks.
“For me it’s important to establish a dialogue for the audience rather than just deciding everything,” says Alfredson. “So I give you suggestions to play around with, and that will keep you active. And you sort of want the effect of people wanting to look around the corner. That is the effect I want to accomplish.”
The effects neither Alfredson nor Straughan were ever interested in were those of the slam-bang, multi-million-dollar sort, which most contemporary filmgoers so closely associate with the spy genre, from Bond to Bourne.
“Going in for the very first meeting,” Straughan says, “[Tomas and I] said to each other, if they want to update it, if they want to put car chases in, if they want to put gun fights in, we’re not doing it. The whole point of the book is it’s the opposite of that stuff. There are lots of movies that do all that; this is the opposite. It gives it a counter vision, and I think for most people it probably feels a lot closer to what they imagine the movie to be. Again, we wanted to stay true to that.”
Adds Alfredson, “I’m not a very useful director for anything like that anyway. I can do a film here and there, but I don’t think I’d be a great action-movie maker.”