Thursday, May 17, 2012
written by Kirk Baird
Alec Guinness’ towering performance cast such a large shadow over the fictional character of George Smiley in the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy mini-series, that Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy novelist John le Carré could hear Guinness speaking as the character in his head while he was writing a sequel to the book. It’s one of the major reasons le Carré quit writing the novels.
The British writer offers these confessions in a half-hour interview included as part of the new Blu-ray release of the 1979 BBC production. There’s also a new half-hour interview with the series’ director, John Irvin. While those features are nice ‑‑ though rather sparse compared to some Blu-ray sets ‑‑ it’s the main attraction that makes this two-disc package worthwhile.
If you were in a crowded room and suddenly felt compelled to yell, “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the greatest spy show ever made!” as a quote from NPR’s Fresh Air declares on the cover of this Blu-ray case, there would be little to no disagreement. Brilliant, tense, full of twists, and filled top-to-bottom with damn fine acting, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is the spy movie by which all films in the genre are — or at least, should be — judged.
It’s everything today’s spy films aren’t: high IQ, patiently paced, and with almost all the action on screen occurring in the head of its lead character, Smiley. A former master spy with the British Secret Intelligence Service (known to those in the organization as the “Circus”), Smiley was forced into retirement with an organizational regime change. But with the discovery that there’s a high-level double agent in the Circus, Smiley is the only one smart enough, determined enough, steely enough, and trustworthy enough to unearth the Soviet mole.
Guinness is perfection personified in the role; like le Carré, it’s impossible not to think of the actor as Smiley, though Gary Oldman’s Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes close to breaking that association. But there’s weary wisdom in the eyes of the older Guinness, who was 65 when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was released, that age make-up cannot replicate for the younger Oldman, who was 53 when the film was released. Life experience is what the character of Smiley is about; he’s an older, wiser, thinking man’s Bond or Jason Bourne, scarred by past failures and regrets, including living with the reminder of his adulterous wife. (To a fellow agent, no less.) But he is almost without peer in the world of espionage, save his Soviet counterpart Karla (played by a younger, balding Patrick Stewart).
Guinness’ Smiley is such a rich, developed character, that it’s difficult to let him go after the six hour-long episodes. Fortunately, he returned in the acclaimed 1982 mini-series Smiley’s People.
For those who felt the pacing of the two-hour Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie was too slow, then don’t bother with this series, which offers half-hour Lost-like flashbacks to flesh out characters and a windy plot that begs repeat viewings to fully grasp. But anyone looking for a mentally engaging and witty spy thriller should find this worthy of his or her time.