Judge Clark Douglas once dressed as a spy for Halloween. He wore ordinary clothes and no one noticed him.
"Got a rabbit to pull out of your hat, Percy? You've got that Britain-can-make-it look about you. Very intimidating."
To commemorate the release of the Gary Oldman-starring film adaptation of John Le Carre's novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the good folks at Acorn Media decided to offer up a DVD release of the 1979 British television adaptation of the same novel. Well, to be more specific, they decided to reissue the 3-disc DVD set they produced in 2002. Still, for those who haven't seen the esteemed original series, this new pressing offers a fine opportunity to catch up.
The plot: There is a mole inside British Intelligence. A senior intelligence officer known only as "Control" (Alexander Knox, The Vikings) has narrowed the suspects down to five high-ranking individuals, whom he has identified with the code names "Tinker," "Tailor," "Soldier," "Poorman," and "Beggarman." After an initial attempt at ferreting out the guilty party fails, Control places his trust in one of the five initial suspects: quiet, soft-spoken intelligence veteran George Smiley (Alec Guinness, The Ladykillers). In cautious, methodical fashion, Smiley discovers a tangled web of deception and attempts to uncover the true identity of the spy lurking within.
If the plot sounds relatively simple, do recall this is a miniseries based on the work of Le Carre, who doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word "simplicity." His books are dense, labyrinthine affairs painted with endless shades of gray; novels which must be studied rather than read. His works have successfully been translated into several well-crafted, reasonably accessible films—the repressed The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the slyly satirical The Tailor of Panama, and the angry The Constant Gardener—but this TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy comes closest to approximating (for better or worse) the experience of actually reading a Le Carre novel.
This is remarkably intelligent television from start to finish, but requires more of the viewer than almost anything else I've seen from the medium. Its incorporation of spy lingo, a large cast of characters, and subtle structure creates a viewing experience which makes something as intricate as The Wire seem simplistic in comparison; you dare not miss a single minute of this series lest you get left behind. It's no coincidence this collection comes with a helpful glossary of characters and terms; an essential addition for those unfamiliar with this particular novel (as I was going in). I found myself being forced to check the glossary quite a bit, particularly during the first few episodes.
However, part of the thrill of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the manner in which it blatantly refuses to hold the audience's hand; throwing them into the midst of unfamiliar characters and forcing them to work things out for themselves. Attentive viewers will be rewarded with a superbly-crafted, slow-burning thriller which leads to an impossibly tense final act; those who lose focus a bit too often will probably be stuck with an exasperatingly slow and impenetrable six-hour marathon of elderly British white men delivering cryptic monologues to one another. I can't stress this enough: drink some coffee, settle in, grab that glossary, and give this series your undivided attention. It will be worth the effort.
It doesn't take much effort to appreciate the quality of the acting on display, with Alec Guinness headlining a uniformly impressive cast. Guinness buries himself in the role of Smiley in remarkable fashion; offering a stripped-down performance in which the most prominent displays of emotion are presented via the adjusting of glasses or the raising of an eyebrow. It's the work of a consummate professional, which Smiley would surely appreciate. The supporting cast includes the likes of Ian Richardson (Brazil), Michael Jayston (Cromwell), George Sewell (Get Carter), Bernard Hepton (Gandhi), Terence Rigby (Tomorrow Never Dies), and Michael Alridge (Chimes at Midnight), all of whom are excellent as a group of similarly buttoned-down gentlemen. Additionally, there's a magnificent extended cameo from Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation), who delivers a spellbinding, wordless performance as the fiendish Russian operative Karla.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looks decent on DVD. The 1.33:1 full frame transfer certainly reflects 1970s television production value, but is sharper than many British TV releases I've seen. This is very much a conversation-driven work, but there are numerous striking locations offered over the course of the series. There's a bit of black crush at times, but nothing too rough. Dolby 1.0 Mono audio is crisp and clean for the most part, with only a few lines of dialogue sounding muffled. Geoffrey Burgon's award-winning score (highlighted by a spine-tingling main theme) comes through with clarity. Supplements include an excellent 28-minute interview with Le Carre, some text info (cast bios, a Le Barre bio, and production notes), and the aforementioned booklet containing a glossary.
The 1979 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is going to be tough going for the casual viewer, but those willing to give their undivided attention will discover a masterful, uncompromising literary adaptation. Le Carre fans will be in heaven.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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