The second of the BBC's well-remembered serialisations of John Le Carré's espionage bestsellers, Smiley's People
is marginally less compulsive than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
if only because Tinker, Tailor
had a much stronger plot premise (who is the mole in British Intelligence?) than Smiley's People
, which takes a very long time to come into focus. Retired spymaster George Smiley (Alec Guinness) wanders around Europe and visits a succession of desperate or eccentric characters as he plays a game which finally leads to another confrontation with and a possible victory over his Moriarty-like Soviet arch-nemesis Karla (an expressive but silent Patrick Stewart cameo).
Directed by Simon Langton and coscripted by John Hopkins and Le Carré himself, this is a leisurely mystery. It offers a cannily generous central performance from Guinness, who never takes off his scarf and does his best to fade into the background while a succession of striking character players hold centre screen; but slowly and by sheer presence he begins to dominate the panoramic view of European treachery, deception and disappointment. Among the terrific supporting cast are Michel Lonsdale, Mario Adorf, Vladek Sheybal, Michael Gough, Alan Rickman (a tiny, early role as a hotel clerk), Beryl Reid, Ingrid Pitt, Bernard Hepton, Michael Elphick, Rosalie Crutchley, Michael Byrne, Bill Paterson and Maureen Lipman. Smiley's People is more interested in character than thrills, with each cameo contributing another view of the human cost of the Cold War: most of the old friends Smiley seeks out react to his reappearance by saying they never wanted to see him again, and victory is only possible because Smiley discovers that his opposite number has a weakness that makes him almost sympathetic. Originally broadcast in six hour-long episodes, its intelligent approach works better if you watch episode-length chunks, letting one sink in before going on. --Kim Newman