Judge Clark Douglas has perfected the art of grimacing while wearing a trench coat.
"Tell Max it concerns The Sandman."
The esteemed novelist John Le Carre was generally displeased with the earliest cinematic adaptations of his work. He disliked Richard Burton's performance in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, had mixed feelings about Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair and flat-out despised The Looking-Glass War. However, the 1977 television production of Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was an enormous success in the eyes of critics, the public and the author himself. In fact, Le Carre was so amazed by Alec Guinness' impressive performance as aging spy George Smiley that the writer soon found himself having difficulty separating his attempts to write the character from memories of Guinness' performance. Perhaps it's no surprise then that Le Carre actually co-scripted the follow-up series Smiley's People a few years later.
Smiley's People is generally regarded as a somewhat lesser affair, but it is to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy what Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye is to The Big Sleep. That is to say it's a quieter, slower tale that adopts a considerably more wistful tone. While it lacks the immediately striking premise of its predecessor (one of Smiley's closest associates is actually a Russian mole!), it compensates for that in the strength of its characterization and the steadily increasing emotional heft of the story. Smiley's People may take a while to get cooking, but it eventually packs quite a punch.
I make the comparison to Chandler partially because Smiley's People begins in a manner befitting one of Philip Marlowe's long, winding investigations. A Russian general (Curd Jurgens, Bitter Victory) who was a close friend of Smiley's has been killed, and now Smiley has been quietly, unofficially drawn out of retirement for the purpose of looking into the matter. The vast bulk of the series is comprised of Smiley paying visits to a variety of old associates: co-workers, confidants, informants, rivals and other people generally in the know. Most seem exceptionally displeased to see him again (he's generally greeted with a scowl, a declaration of something along the lines "Bloody hell, George!" and begrudgingly invited in for a cup of tea). Everyone knows that a visit from Smiley at this stage in the game must mean something dreadfully important needs to be dealt with. "You never do anything without a reason, George," one old associate sighs.
In masterfully subdued fashion, Smiley's People steadily leads Smiley back to a character we were introduced to in the previous series: the ferocious Karla (Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Once again, Karla has only one scene and he has absolutely no dialogue. Once again, it's a moment that proves nothing short of spellbinding. However, it only works as well as it does because the build-up to that moment is so beautifully handled, and the alternately terse and warm negotiations between Smiley and his assorted contacts (played by a host of fine thespians including Michael Gough, Michael Lonsdale, Eileen Atkins, Bernard Hepton, Anthony Bate and even a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Alan Rickman) are marvelous to behold. Guinness once again demonstrates that he can do a great deal with very little, though he's called upon to emote a bit more strikingly this time around. Now that he's officially out of "The Circus," Smiley seems less interested in maintaining his poker face than in doing whatever is required to get results in expedient fashion. As usual in Le Carre tales, there's a tangled web of political elements at play. Smiley doesn't know precisely who he needs to look out for or why, but he certainly realizes that time is of the essence.
Smiley's People looks pretty rough on DVD; the series clearly hasn't been as well-preserved as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There are quite a few scratches and flecks, the image is often dirty, and softness is a significant issue. Audio is also very underwhelming, some dialogue sounds so muffled that it's barely audible. There are times when we appear to be listening to a worn-out cassette tape. It never so bad that it becomes unwatchable or unlistenable, but don't expect much from the technical department. Supplements include a 20-minute interview with Le Carre, some production notes, a glossary of characters and terms, cast filmographies and a Le Carre bibliography. It should be noted that some 40 minutes or so of footage is missing from this version, as Acorn is presenting the version which was edited for rebroadcast on PBS in the United States. I couldn't spot any moments which seem obviously edited and didn't have trouble following the story, but it's worth noting that the unedited version of the series is available on DVD in the U.K. As I haven't seen that version, I can't comment on how much the series may be damaged by the excision of those scenes.
Controversial editing issues aside, Smiley's People is rich, intelligent television featuring another magnificent Guinness performance and an involving (though slow-burning) story. Like its predecessor, this miniseries does a tremendous job of recreating Le Carre's methodical, repressed yet ultimately thrilling writing style. It's certainly recommended, though do note the missing scenes, disappointing audio and lackluster transfer before you pick up this set.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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