Eeny Meeny Miney Moe... 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

Alec Guinness in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

Like it or not, the 1979 BBC version of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy with Alec Guinness will forever be compared to the 2011 feature film with Gary Oldman. But which one is better?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Director: John Irvin
Cast: Alec Guiness, Michael Jayston, Anthony Bate, George Sewell, Bernard Hepton, Ian Richardson, Hywel Bennett, Terence Rigby, Ian Bannen, Michael Aldridge, Alexander Knox, Patrick Stewart
Length: 324 minutes/6 episodes
Studio: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Paramount Pictures
Year: 1979
Distributor: Acorn
MPAA Rating: -
Release date: 2012-04-24

I went about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in a backwards manner rather befitting such a perplexing tale of spy vs. spies. I saw the newest incarnation first. Starring Gary Oldman and directed by Tomas Alfredson, the 2011 Oscar-nominated film was a brilliantly frustrating thriller worthy of all the praises it received (and more). Before it, though, came the BBC production of the same title in 1979. Before that, obviously, came John Le Carre’s novel.

I now have viewed John Irvin’s six-part television miniseries. I very much want to read the novel, but I feel the order of my indulgence will be the most common for those who didn’t catch the BBC production when it originally aired – therefore, anyone loyal to the book’s vision may not find the rest of my thoughts particularly valuable.

That being said, I feel compelled to pick a side. Disregarding the book I have not read, do I prefer the movie or miniseries? 1979 or 2011? Oldman or Guiness? As a lover of the classics and a strong advocate for originals over remakes, reissues, or reboots, I felt immediately biased to Irvin’s lengthy television drama. Then I watched it.

Alfredson’s impeccably tight, confounding film is by far the superior version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Shot like masterpiece theater but featuring performances with much less emotion, John Irvin’s edition falls short of its follow-up film in every important aspect, including the lead performance. This isn’t to say its not entirely without merit, but I would argue you only need to see one and that one should have Gary Oldman in it.

Let's break it down.

The Execution

Alfredson’s version caught a lot of flack from audiences (and a few critics) for moving to fast for its complex plot. I don’t know if people had the same complaints in 1979, but the good folks at Acorn media have included a glossary of main characters and terms to help people follow along. They even through in a cast list in case people found it easier to match actors with character names. It came in handy a few times (mainly when I needed to check spelling), but I think it would be more useful for Alfredson’s version than this one.

Irvin paces his thriller with a deliberate slowness I imagine he hoped would help people keep up with the variety of characters, twists, and turns. It might for some. There are plenty of moments to dwell on what just happened, and plenty of exposition that’s reiterated for clarity. Unfortunately, it slowed down the story considerably. What was originally a seven-part series was edited down to only six, and it could have been cut even more.

Complain all you want about the convoluted nature of Alfredson’s picture. At least it’s never boring. Irvin, who has his own 30-minute interview included on the disc (that’s actually kind of fun, especially when he talks about the semi-serious, semi-diva Alec Guinness), has all the visual flare of a security camera. I know TV was made a certain way in the '70s, and it wasn’t shot like a film as it is today. I’m not expecting Scorsese behind the camera. Yet anything out of the ordinary would’ve been welcomed here, especially considering the dire events unfolding in the story.

The Lead

This leads me into one of my main problems with the varying portrayals of our dynamic protagonist George Smiley. On the one hand, we have Alec Guinness’ droll, everyman version of one of Britain’s greatest spies. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, showing exasperation, affection, and disdain all too readily. I imagine Guiness presented Smiley as an average Joe because he thinks it’s the best way for Smiley to blend in with the crowd. A spy can only do his job when he’s not always looking over his shoulder, after all.

On the other hand, we have Gary Oldman’s contemplative, closed-off version of Control’s favorite investigator. This Smiley is haunted by his past, yet obviously trained well to protect it. He almost never shows emotion, barring a riveting scene when he recounts his meeting with the Russian bigwig Karla. He’s always calm, controlled, and at the ready. You can tell he’s always thinking, no matter what’s going on in front of him.

Yet despite Guiness’ more emotionally relaxed turn, it’s Oldman’s performance that engages us. He cares. He cares about everything. He cares about trying to find the mole in the Circus. He cares about his coworkers, well, his co-spies. Most importantly, he cares about his wife Ann, even though we never see her. More importantly, he conveys this deep connection without exposing himself to his enemies. He never breaks from being a spy. He never relaxes. It’s an incredible accomplishment deserving of the lofty role.

Guiness is too detached for the viewer to latch onto. At one point somewhere in the middle episodes of the series, he reassures his sidekick Peter Guillam they’re “almost to the end. Not quite, but almost.” He’s referring to the end of the case. It’s almost solved. I get that they’re kind of winking at the viewer, but what kind of thing is that to say about the most important discovery ever for British intelligence? It makes it seem trivial, and that’s unacceptable given the circumstances surrounding him.

The Picture

All right. I’m not a complete nincompoop. I know the video for the new version of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is going to look better than what John Irvin shot in 1979. Still, the Blu-ray treatment given to his work is a mixed bag. Though I could tell from watching the deleted scenes in standard definition the feature film was spruced up a bit, there were still some nagging issues with the soundtrack and dust specs on the film that were inexplicably left unaltered.

This is easily the best the video has ever looked though. If you liked the original BBC series, this is certainly the format to own it on, and not just for the quality. As I mentioned before, the interview with John Irvin is actually pretty good. It appears to be the only bonus feature exclusive to the Blu-ray edition as well. There are no cutaways to the miniseries or excerpts from anyone else. It’s just Irvin discussing the movie for a half-hour. Luckily, he’s got some fun things to say.

The John Le Carre interview is an old one from 2002. It was included on the last edition, as well. Le Carre is clearly extremely bright and speaks about his work in an equally intelligent fashion. The deleted scenes are only 11 minutes long, and that figure is padded by including the surrounding scenes left in the miniseries. The aforementioned booklet was also included in the DVD edition from last year.

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge the two works next to each other. After all, they were made for different mediums at different times. No one is wrong here – not when the story is this good. However, I feel it’s exactly what people will do. They always have. Yet in this instance I feel it’s somewhat important to pick a side. The 1979 version requires more than five-and-a-half hours to get through. The 2011 version is only two hours. If you have the time and interest, see both.


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