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Refreshingly intelligent entertainment,
This review is from: Smiley's People [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] (DVD)
Perhaps two of the most intelligent television miniseries ever made are the BBC adaptations of John le Carre's spy novels TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and SMILEY'S PEOPLE, the latter being the sequel to the former. The late Sir Alec Guinness, who brilliantly starred as George Smiley in both, became identified with that character for all time.
As you may recall, TTSS and SP were the first and last books, respectively, of the Karla series. (The second, THE HONORABLE SCHOOLBOY, was never adapted to the small screen. The plot was considered too complex.) In TTSS, Smiley, formerly right-hand man to the Director of the British Secret Intelligence Service (the "Circus" or MI-6), is brought out of retirement to dig out a highly placed Soviet mole embedded in the Circus. In SP, it's several years later, and Smiley is brought out of retirement a second time by the politicians to "tidy up" after a Russian emigre, a former general, is brutally murdered on Hampstead Heath. Because the old soldier was an occasional source of information for the Service, the "Minister" wants George to make sure there's no embarrassment to the government in the affair. Smiley soon discovers that the killing has a link to Karla, his old nemesis in the KGB's Moscow Center. Karla has been a thorn in the side of MI-6 for years, and was the one who controlled the mole that was Smiley's quarry in TTSS. In SP, George finally brings Karla down.
Several of the characters appearing in TTSS appear also in SMILEY'S PEOPLE, providing a nice touch of continuity: Smiley, Oliver Lacon (the Minister's lackey), Anne (Smiley's wife), Connie (MI-6's Head of Research, retired), Toby Esterhasy (one of the high Circus executives under suspicion in TTSS), Karla, and Peter Guillam (Smiley's right hand in TTSS). And, except for the Guillam character, where Michael Byrne takes over the role from Michael Jayston, all actors from TTSS return in SP.
Some will think that the miniseries version of SP and the original book are boring: no special FX, no shoot-outs, no wild chases, and no babes. If that's what you want, then le Carre's stories are not for you. It's all about plot and character development, and the slow, methodical process of putting together the intricate espionage puzzle at hand. If the viewer hasn't read the original book, then he/she is advised to take notes as the storyline unfolds.
Had SMILEY'S PEOPLE been made for the Big Screen, then Guinness should surely have won an Oscar. George is the essence of inscrutable as he peers at his world through owlish, heavy-rimmed spectacles. Despite his name, he smiles only once - perhaps twice - during the entire six hour run time. Mild irritation is his only occasional manifestation of anger. Outside of his work, as Anne puts it rhetorically in TTSS, "Life's a great puzzle to you, isn't it George?" One senses a great deal of hurt in Smiley, much of it heaped on him by the same Anne, a serial adulteress. When someone says to Smiley, "My love to Anne", he may mean it, literally. Even Karla's mole in the Circus shared Anne's bed. But in his element, George has no equal in puzzle-solving, and Karla's days are numbered.
My other favorite performance in SMILEY'S PEOPLE is that of Bernard Hepton as Toby Esterhasy. As he stage manages in episode six the sting that will result in Karla's downfall, his enthusiasm is positively infectious. It brought a grin to my face, if not Smiley's.
The DVD also has an interview with le Carre. At one point, he describes the evolution of Smiley, his greatest fictional character. Interestingly, the author said he'd wanted to develop his hero's persona in future books -perhaps to show George's darker side - but was prevented from doing so by the public's merger of Alec Guinness and Smiley via the TTSS and SP screen productions. After all, Guinness is a British icon, and no liberties could be taken. Ironically, this resulted in Smiley's early demise and subsequent absence from later novels.
I cannot recommend SMILEY'S PEOPLE, or TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, too highly. Obtain them both, and settle down for twelve hours of magnificent Cold War drama.