Decades before last year’s theatrical adaptation, John le Carre’s classic espionage novel was the basis for this BBC TV miniseries. While a common complaint about the movie version was the rushed and confusing pace caused by compressing a complex novel into a couple of hours, the miniseries format allows the story to unfold over a leisurely six-hour timeframe. The miniseries also boasts the inspired casting of Alec Guinness in his BAFTA-winning lead role as George Smiley, a great match for the material.
There’s something inherently more convincing about a Cold War story filmed in the waning days of the actual Cold War than decades later, with its Soviet paranoia adding a layer of realism to the performances. Those performances are mostly of the stuffy British persuasion, given the principal setting of England’s espionage “Circus”, code name for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). When the aging SIS spy chief suspects a Russian mole at the highest levels of his organization, he arranges for a surreptitious investigation. He assigns a code name to each of his four suspects which is only known by his closest confidant and himself, hence the odd title of the project.
Retired spy Smiley soon gets secretly assigned to the case and sets out to reveal the traitor while concealing his active spy status, calling in favors and information from other ex-SIS operatives while avoiding the four chief suspects. He also briefly tries to get information out of an imprisoned Russian spy played by Patrick Stewart, which admittedly set my sci-fi fanboy heart afire when I witnessed Jean-Luc Picard staring down Obi-Wan Kenobi. The series builds tension by having Smiley navigate the intricate web of current and former spy relationships needed to point him to the truth while concurrently staying off the radar of the villain.
While the miniseries format allows the story to expand to its full impact and is a better match for the complex novel than a movie format, at six hours it felt a bit too leisurely by today’s ADHD sensibilities. It’s very dry and deadly serious, with only occasional wry humor from Guinness to lighten the mood. The claustrophobic, omnipresent fear of the Soviet threat and espionage double-crosses color the project, delivering a tension-filled ride that can’t quite sustain itself for the whole series.
The series doesn’t appear to have been appreciably restored for this release, but its print isn’t overly dirty or scratched so has been well preserved. Although Blu-ray doesn’t afford much tangible benefit in image or sound enhancement here due to the technical limitations of the 1970s fullscreen, mono TV format, it’s nice to have the subtle improvement it offers over DVD. The bonus features include a new half-hour interview with series director John Irvin, along with a few inconsequential deleted scenes and an older half-hour interview with John le Carre.