Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) DVD Review: An Enthralling Search for a Mole in the Circus

During the latter half of the 20th Century, David John Moore Cornwell became world renowned as espionage-fiction writer John le Carré. His breakout book was his third, 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Unlike Ian Fleming’s wild adventures where hero James Bond battled obvious villains, le Carré wrote realistic spy stories filled with complex characters, due in part to his having been a member of British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6.

A number of his novels have been turned into films over the years, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, The Russia House (1990) starring Sean Connery, and The Constant Gardener (2005) starring Ralph Finnes. Currently in theaters, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, based on the 1974 novel of the same name stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the main character of some novels and a minor character in others. He has big shoes to fill as Alec Guinness previously played the role in the outstanding 1979 BBC miniseries, which Acorn Media has available as a highly recommended three-disc set.

Cut down from the original seven episodes into six, as it aired on PBS’ Great Performances, TTSS finds retired agent George Smiley called back into service for MI6, known as the Circus, to find a mole codenamed “Gerald” who is working for the Soviets. Four high-ranking members of the Circus are suspects and have been for a while. The former head of the Circus, known as Control, was concerned but a botched mission in Czechoslovakia resulted in his being forced out of the job. Smiley has to tread cautiously as he gathers information and conducts interviews.

As tidbits about the suspects are revealed, the culprit becomes obvious before the reveal, which was slightly disappointing, but the story isn’t just about mystery. The writing, which was adapted by Arthur Hopcraft, is captivating as Smiley hunts for the truth. A brilliant piece of business is the way Smiley’s wife becomes a presence felt throughout the miniseries, yet she only appears in the last few moments. She was unfaithful to Smiley and those who don’t like what he’s up to use the information to tease and taunt him. Guinness’ Smiley remains stoic throughout, but the sting grows more intense each time the matter is brought up. The entire cast does a great job bringing these characters to life.

The extras include a fascinating 28-minute interview with author John le Carré from 2002 (27 min), his biography, production notes from an interview with producer Jonathan Powell, cast filmographies, and a booklet containing a glossary of the main characters and terms. While the miniseries is well done, the DVD transfer isn’t. A number of scenes, from nighttime exteriors to darkened interiors, are too dark and objects get lost. Hopefully, this will be corrected if there’s ever a new transfer created for high definition. But until then, this version of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is well worth investigating.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site.

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