John le Carré’s ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ Reheats the Cold War

In post-World War II Britain, MI6, nicknamed the Circus in John le Carré’s novels, once solicited new agents as often as they gathered government intelligence. During the long years of the Cold War, when Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy takes place, the Circus begins to lose Control—the code name for its long-time and increasingly paranoid chief—as well as its global network of agents. Word filters down that a mole within British intelligence has been supplying Control’s Russian counterpart, Karla, with information. The likely suspects receive code names of their own: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man, Beggar Man—and all are spies, even if they prefer to think of themselves as elite MI6 officers. To force the mole into daylight, and uncover the truth behind a long-buried operation gone wrong, former employee George Smiley (Alec Guinness) returns to investigate the organization to which he has devoted his life.

Those accustomed to Daniel Craig-styled spies might find Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’s storytelling slow and linear; the BBC miniseries is far less action packed and frantic than a Bond thriller. Each of the six episodes builds quietly and steadily as Smiley peels back layer after layer of betrayals, some expected, others shocking. The power of this miniseries comes not from car chases or explosions but the solemn implosion of the Circus.

The agency’s golden boy, Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson), asks Smiley, “Do you know what’s killing Western democracy, George? Greed, and constipation. Moral, political, aesthetic… The economic repression of the masses institutionalized.” This line, delivered in a 1979 miniseries set a few years earlier in London, is one of several bits of dialogue that may resonate with audiences in 2011.

The plot deals with themes of deceit and betrayal. As le Carré explains in the 2002 interview included in this DVD set, he thinks of the Cold War as “a game of loyalty, and it was a question between personal and collective loyalty.” That description, minus the Cold War label, could be applied to the fraught political scene today. We might not ever meet a George Smiley; however, especially in an age of Wikileaks investigations and political backstabbing, we can recognize the significance of such a character.

Perhaps that is one reason why Smiley is suddenly back in favor. This DVD set arrives just weeks before the US premiere of a new film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one receiving kudos at film festivals and in the media as the film went into wide release in the UK. Whether on DVD or in the cinema, Smiley is an again-relevant and always intriguing character who deserves our attention.

For those wanting to refresh their memory about le Carré’s novel, one of a series of spy stories in which Smiley is a character, the BBC miniseries comes very close to bringing each page to life on screen. Of course, some details, especially those dealing with the personal lives of the intelligence agents and their pawns, are referenced only in conversations or have been deleted from this adaptation. The heart and style of le Carré’s richly nuanced characters and carefully constructed intrigue remain intact. During a 28-minute interview with the author, the only truly special feature added to this box set, le Carré notes that the BBC’s miniseries “came as near… to my imagining as any film has come” in adapting his novels. A major reason for the author’s approval of this adaptation is Alec Guinness’ portrayal of George Smiley.

“The genius of Guinness,” le Carré continues in the interview, “was to leave the character of Smiley intact for the individual imagination. He suggested the possibilities of Smiley, as well as the reality. In that sense I think it was almost a mystical performance.” How ironic that le Carré terms Guinness’ performance “mystical,” a term usually associated with the actor’s far more commercial success as Star War’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Perhaps an important reason for new audiences to come to this miniseries before they consider seeing its 21st century remake is to watch Guinness in a role that won him best actor BAFTAs in 1980, for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and 1983, for the television sequel, Smiley’s People. Le Carré’s reminiscence of Guinness’ approach to this iconic role is important for acting enthusiasts to hear—it informs our understanding of the performance, but it also offers insights into the work ethic and style of one of the greatest actors of the 20th century.

As Smiley, Guinness can turn a simple action, such as gently cleaning a lens on his glasses, into a character-changing moment. Before he removes his glasses, he seems to be mild mannered retiree George, but when he puts them on again, his eyes signal Smiley’s incisive intelligence and controlled menace. The lenses magnify his all-seeing eyes and alert us, as well as the men he interrogates, that George Smiley is truly the power behind the Circus, past or future.

The story is told through minimalist camera movement, such as frequent long shots of characters, which allow us, like Circus operatives, to observe or follow from a distance. At times the camera’s slow dolly toward a room lets us voyeuristically eavesdrop on important conversations. The miniseries is a study in moral shades of gray, but its cinematography emphasizes silhouettes and shadows that clearly separate light from dark. Viewers who enjoy analyzing how a story is told as much as they revel in the plot or characterization should enjoy dissecting Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The six episodes, two per disc, clearly are the star of this DVD set. With the exception of the le Carré interview, the other special features only save readers from taking the time to locate author or cast information on IMDB or even Wikipedia. Considering that the miniseries was broadcast in the digital Dark Age of 1979, long before the popularity of “making of” videos or DVD commentaries, this adaptation should not be expected to have as much flash as substance.

The BBC’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy may not be as flashy as more recent espionage dramas, but it would be difficult to find a role or performance more substantive than Alec Guinness’ George Smiley.

RATING 7 / 10
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