George Smiley is the polar opposite of James Bond. They’re both spies for the British Secret Intelligence Service, but Smiley is a retired old desk jockey who gets by entirely on his clever mind rather than any feats of derring-do. As once again fully embodied by veteran screen legend Alec Guinness, following his masterful turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley is a cunning, dogged individual who uses his wits to navigate the murky politics of the SIS as well as their clean-up operation for a dead informant. Unlike its predecessor, Smiley’s People also features a screenplay written by original novel author John le Carre, himself also a retired old SIS desk jockey. That connection between author and subject adds a tantalizing air of authenticity to the fictional plot, heightened by the pitch-perfect casting of Guinness.
This being a three decade old British miniseries, the pace is generally excruciatingly slow, punctuated only by sporadic key scenes that further the plot, such as a clandestine meeting where Smiley’s old section chief details his mission parameters. The pacing is so deliberate that we don’t even see Smiley until over halfway through the first hour-long episode, giving the director ample time to set up the series premise. In other words, don’t make this your next binge viewing project, because it’s unlikely to keep you awake. Taken in small doses however, as it was originally broadcast, it’s easy to fall under the spell of Guinness completely dominating the screen, even more so than in Tinker Tailor’s ensemble approach because he’s the sole lead here.
The event that pulls the old spy out of retirement is the resurfacing of a veteran dormant Soviet informant named Vladimir who calls into the SIS demanding to meet with Smiley. Since Smiley no longer works there, the young duty officer who takes the call sets up a meeting at a secure location pretending that Smiley will appear, assuming he’ll be able to explain that he can accept the information on retired Smiley’s behalf. All well and good, until the informant catches a lethal bullet near the meeting spot, leading the SIS to reach out to Smiley after the fact to get the situation sorted. The current SIS regime wants nothing to do with a murder investigation or whatever information Vladimir might have been passing along, instead expecting Smiley to just tie up any loose ends off the official books and get back to his retirement.
The story takes place in the waning days of the Cold War and long before the Internet age, adding palpable paranoia as Smiley travels around Europe searching for clues while avoiding detection. His “people” are the old contacts he seeks out in an attempt to piece together Vladimir’s fate and secret information, predominantly old codgers like himself who are still able to contribute forward momentum to the quest. Eventually, his SIS bosses demand that he abandons his mission, but when he gets a hint that the answer to the mystery involves his old nemesis, a Soviet super spy named Karla, he becomes even more committed to the cause and strikes out on his own to continue the adventure as a private citizen. Much of the pleasure of the piece involves Smiley noodling out clues from old stomping grounds and old allies, even as he realizes he’s setting up a potentially calamitous confrontation with Karla. Guinness is just so, so impressive in the role, offering a master class in both subtlety and directness as he contributes a reserved and yet passionately intelligent take on le Carre’s classic character.
While the Blu-ray image quality isn’t the greatest due to the source material, with persistent grain and occasional debris on the print, it’s clearly preferable to the lower resolution of DVD. Unlike the majority of past Acorn releases, the Blu-ray set includes a winning collection of bonus features. The highlight is a leisurely 20-minute interview with le Carre filmed a decade ago where he discusses the genesis of the Smiley character, his deep appreciation of Guinness, and recollections on the production of the miniseries. The set also includes over an hour of deleted and extended scenes.