Case Number 26042: Small Claims Court


Acorn Media // 1982 // 324 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // July 31st, 2013

The Charge

Eye Spy With My Little Eye...Spies.

The Case

For many, Alec Guinness and his portrayal of George Smiley in the BBC adaptation of John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (later remade with Gary Oldman) remains the seminal example of the Cold War spy. He's no James Bond, but his reach is much further and his political and professional effect far more damaging. Le Carre (actually the pen name for David John Moore Cornwell) became world famous when his novel, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, became a hit 1965 film starring Richard Burton. After that, he had a successful '70s run with Tinker Tailor and its two sequels (The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley's People), before settling into the '80s with The Little Drummer Girl and The Russia House. In 2001, his The Constant Gardener became an Oscar-winning film, and since the new millennium, his work has been reconsidered as part of an older, more authentic world of espionage and intrigue. Of course, with the Cold War over, he's also seen as dated and defiantly "British."

With Smiley's People, the third book in the so-called informal "Karla" series, we skip past the events of Schoolboy to focus instead of the death of a Estonia general (Curd Jürgens, The Vault of Horror) who has been helping an émigré, Madame Ostrakova (Eileen Atkins, The Dresser) with the daughter she left behind in the country. Before he was found dead, the official made a phone call to the British spy group known as "The Circus," asking for a meeting with his old handler, Max. When said name is typed into the database, it turns out to be the now retired Smiley (Guinness, Scrooge). Asked by his superiors to investigate the case to see what happened and to figure out what the reference to "The Sandman" might mean, Smiley leaves the comfort of his Autumn years to retrace the general's steps. After much foot work, traveling from Hamburg to Paris and back to London, it is clear that, as usual, all paths lead back to Smiley's arch-nemesis, Russian rogue Karla (Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Armed with a plan and a wealth of evidence, our aging hero hopes to rid the world of this scourge once and for all.

You have to like your spy games on the slow and meticulous side to enjoy something like Smiley's People. This is not a title for the slow-witted or the ADHD addled. Things don't zip by at a lightning pace and there's very few "action" scenes to break up the exposition. As with most of Le Carre's work, this is a mystery wrapped in layers of character development and international intrigue. This is meticulous stuff, a whodunit where you can never figure out the facts because you only learn of the clues as the players do. So there's no "Ah has!," no true moment of denouement. Instead, Guinness goes about his expert best, revisiting locations and making observations. Each conversation becomes a pickaxe into the strata of stuff he must gather and process before moving on to the next possible source of information. Sure, there's danger here, as well as the possibility of one false move messing everything up, but Le Carre built his reputation off of satisfying readers, not angering them, so all conclusions come with a combination of resolve and reestablishment. When Smiley is done, all is usually right in the black ops world.

As for the series itself, it is a well-acted and nicely structured follow-up to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy though it's not as solid, story wise. In fact, since we know that this will be the last time Smiley ever faces off against Karla, you keep waiting for those puzzle pieces to connect so that we get that promised classic thespian stand-off. Instead, Smiley's People settles on a silent resolve, an exchange of glances that is more devastating than any well written verbal repartee. The other six parts, however, surely make up for the lack of a conversational finale. There are dozens of speaking parts here, actors allowed to show up, show off, and showcase their incredible talents. Even better, the early '80s locales, brimming with low tech treats and a significant lack of cellphones makes for a nice bit of nostalgia. In general, Tinker Tailor's mole hunt is more enticing, especially in light of the whole "undermining the crown" concept. With regards to the current political clime circa 2013, Smiley's People is quaint, not quite as riveting or salient as it was in the days before Mikhail Gorbachev and Perestrioka. There was still a Berlin Wall. There was still an Iron Curtain. There was still a need for spies like Smiley and Karla.

As for Acorn's Blu-ray release, all one can say is thank god the BBC filmed this series. One can only imagine how odd an HD release of old video footage would look here. Granted, the 1080i, 1.36:1 image is a bit disappointing, not only for its lack of crystal clear resolution and 16mm defects, but because we are no more or less used to anamorphic imagery filling up our screens. This is old school TV at its most middling. As for the sound situation, it is similar to the visual approach. A lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono track does a good job with the dialogue and score, though neither has much dynamic range or immersion. Fans will be happy to see some significant added content, though. Ported over from the Tinker Tailor Solider Spy Blu-ray is a twenty minute interview with Le Carre that is thoughtful and insightful. It is interesting to hear the man talk about adapting his own work. Next up are a series of episode based deleted scenes. Many are mere extensions of already existing sequences while others are actual edits. Add in some text based material on Le Carre and his catalog, a handy insert with a cast of characters, and a few production notes and you have a solid home video release.

So, if you believe that Skyfall contained too much of that mopey 007 wandering around the countryside trying to resolve his feelings about being given a second chance of life as a British spy, you'll think Smiley's People is the equivalent of his non-butt kicking melancholy. If, on the other hand, you love smartly written, expertly paced and acted espionage, you'll really enjoy this. It's very, very good. It even borders on the great at times. Most importantly, it showcases Alec Guinness doing what he does best-inhabiting a character and getting us to care for him wholly.

The Verdict

Not guilty. An excellent, if dated, spy story.

Review content copyright © 2013 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 87

Perp Profile
Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
* Full Frame (1080i)

Audio Formats:
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)

* English (SDH)

Running Time: 324 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Interview
* Text Features
* Deleted Scenes

* IMDb