Thursday, November 24, 2011

Consider the Source: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'

Posted By on Thu, Nov 24, 2011 at 8:56 AM

GUY SMILEY: Alec Guinness as George Smiley
Gary Oldman has some big glasses to fill when he portrays British spymaster George Smiley in the upcoming big-screen version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In 1979, Alec Guinness didn’t just play the role; he essentially took ownership of it with the BBC’s adaptation of the classic spy novel. Author John LeCarré introduced the mild-mannered espionage expert in 1961, and found that after Guinness took on the character, he felt compelled to hasten Smiley’s retirement:

From the moment Alec's voice became that music in my ear, I felt that I was hampered. I cannot help voicing my characters and listening to them - that's the failed actor in me - so I think that Alec must have accelerated my departure. I wanted to bury Smiley, I wanted to write about younger people, I wanted to be unencumbered. Alec made that happen faster.

To catch Smiley’s comeback, Acorn Media has re-released the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy miniseries on DVD, along with the sequel, Smiley’s People, which also starred Guinness. Viewed 30 years later, Tinker, Tailor remains an excellent, closely-observed account of treason and brinksmanship amid the Cold War’s cloak-and-dagger maneuvers. But it’s also such a quiet, deliberately-paced film that one needs to meet the early chapters halfway.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy concerns retired Smiley’s clandestine hunt for a Soviet mole at the top of the British intelligence service, which LeCarré’s characters call “the Circus” without exception. Historically, LeCarré drew inspiration from the real-life English/Soviet double agents known as the “Cambridge Five.” As TV narratives, the LeCarré adaptations should be considered responses to the James Bond franchise. Considering that Roger Moore’s biggest, most outlandishly unrealistic Bond film Moonraker came out in 1979, the same year as the miniseries, “Tinker, Tailor’s” unglamorous, often office-bound depiction of espionage “tradecraft” can seem at times defiantly dull.

The first two chapters take pains to set up the story. Chapter One features a disastrous covert mission in Czechoslovakia, while Chapter Two primarily depicts a young agent’s extended flashback of a mission in Lisbon that hinted at the mole’s existence. Primarily, though, the episodes introduce Smiley as a placid, harmless-looking retiree forced out of the Circus after a scandal ended the career of Control, the former head of the service. There’s a wonderful moment when Smiley, questioning the young agent, puts his glasses back on and a serious, almost predatory expression crosses his face. With just a look, Guinness signals that Smiley’s far more formidable than he seems. Words remarked of another character could apply to him: “He has the heavy quiet that commands.”

“Tinker, Tailor” really takes off with the third episode, which explores the backgrounds of the four Intelligence chiefs who could be the mole. Played by some terrific British character actors (Michael Aldridge, Bernard Hepton, Terence Rigby and the great Ian Richardson), the career spies reveal naked ambition, petty grievances and self-amused arrogance. “Tinker, Tailor” works brilliantly as a portrayal of cut-throat bureaucracy and office politicking, only with the fate of nations in the balance. As in LeCarré’s original novel, the miniseries captures the con-artist complexity of double agents, and how they have to provide intelligence that’s good enough to attract another spy, without giving away the store.

The miniseries really sings in its conversation scenes, when Smiley reminiscences with old colleagues, interrogates suspicious characters and gradually uncovers the mole’s layers of deception. A fourth episode flashback pairs Guinness with Patrick "Capt. Picard" Stewart as Karla, a taciturn Soviet spy whose future is entwined with Smiley’s. Though Smiley does all the talking, Karla seems to hold the advantage. Perhaps the only other performer to do more with less is Siân Phillips as Smiley’s unfaithful wife, who is mentioned throughout the series but only appears at the end. Phillips lives up to our mental image of the role.

While the BBC originally aired Tinker Tailor in seven parts, the series was reedited to six for American broadcast, and the new DVD retains the six-part structure. Consequently, the episodes tend to conclude at the oddest, most arbitrary moments. Tinker, Tailor’s narrative eccentricities keep the film from breaking into the top echelon of classic BBC miniseries with I, Claudius, Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown. Nevertheless, Guinness gives one of the most marvelously minimal performances that television has ever seen.

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