In an interview included among this new three-disc set’s bonus material, novelist John le Carre calls Alec Guinness’ portrayal in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy of retired British spy George Smiley as “mystical.” And that’s the perfect word for it in this masterful BBC television mini-series from 1979, based on le Carre’s novel and adapted by director John Irvin. It’s making its DVD debut timed to the release of a new, theatrical version starring Gary Oldman and Colin Firth.
Over the course of six hours, Guinness plays Smiley as not just a man with a mission but also as a hovering, quietly intuitive state of mind — a human soundcloud — whose fierce intelligence is muted by a quiet resignation, a sense of personal surrender that comes across as graceful but sad. Behind thick glasses that he wears like a shield, Guinness gives one of the finest, most realistic and haunting portrayals of a spy you’ll ever see.
He’s living in late-1970s Britain, still mired in the Cold War abroad but increasingly disillusioned at home, its citizens separated by class and infused with melancholy for what’s lost as they get older. And the Secret Intelligence Service (known to insiders as the Circus), where he had been close to the now-deceased leader (Alexander Knox) until being forced out after a bungled operation he had nothing to do with, reflects those changes. Its offices are dingy and claustrophobic; its officers petty and sarcastic and backstabbing. In fact, one of them is a “mole” — sending information to the Soviets.
Because all Circus leadership is suspect, a senior government advisor asks Smiley to come out of retirement to shepherd the investigation. This he does, despite the fact that one of the suspects (Ian Richardson) once had a very public affair with Smiley’s wife. The investigative process sets off a flood of memories — shown often as extended flashbacks but also sometimes expressed by others through exquisitely delivered monologues — as he goes about his task. The whole thing is exquisitely filmed and acted. Grade: A