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Monday, October 31, 2011

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979) -- DVD review by porfle

I've always been a big fan of over-the-top depictions of the international spy as a glamorized action hero, as best typified by Ian Fleming's James Bond.  But author John le Carré's realistic world of workaday intelligence agents toiling at a thankless and often soul-deadening job filled with real danger and paranoia has its own dark fascination.  Capturing this like an absorbing Cold War novel come to life is the first-rate BBC mini-series adaptation, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979), starring Alec "Obi-Wan Kenobi" Guinness as the indefatigable George Smiley. 

The aging Smiley is "retired" from the agency known as The Circus due to being one of the fall guys after a botched mission in Czechoslovakia ends in chaos and the near-fatal shooting of agent Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen).  Smiley's former boss, known only as "Control", has been replaced by the ambitious Percy Alleline (Michael Aldridge) and his close-knit circle of associates--Haydon (Ian Richardson), Bland (Terence Rigby), and Esterhase (Bernard Hepton). 

When one of these men is suspected of being a mole supplying vital information to a sinister Russian contact named "Karla", Smiley is pressed back into service at the behest of a top government official in order to head a secret investigation.  But his efforts only seem to uncover deeper mysteries involving internal corruption, deception, and betrayal on a grand scale, with the evil spectre of Karla lurking behind it all.

Alec Guinness is pitch perfect as the enigmatic George Smiley, a keenly intelligent, emotionally distant man constantly haunted by reminders of his wife's infidelity.  Guinness' dry performance is an ideal match for this restrained, slow-burn production whose story slowly and methodically pieces itself together like a jigsaw puzzle. 

There's very little of the standard action-movie stuff save for Prideaux's ill-fated affair in Czechoslovakia early on, and even the suspense scenes--such as Smiley's young assistant Guillam (Michael Jayston) burgling files from their own agency--are staged in a realistic, matter-of-fact way without the usual cinematic frills.

The very literate script by Arthur Hopcraft is so subtle and low-key, in fact, that a lot of viewers may have trouble following it.  Crucial names and references necessary to understanding the increasingly complex plot are hard to keep up with for those without photographic memories.  So, when I finished the fourth episode out of six and realized that I pretty much had no idea what the hell was going on, I actually went back and started over. 

This time, fortunately, everything fell into place and became extremely absorbing, and I found the last couple of episodes riveting.  It may take some patience getting there, but the final revelations in episode six, which come after a highly suspenseful build-up, prove extremely satisfying. 

Among the supporting cast are Hywel Bennett as "scalphunter" Ricki Tarr, who sets events into motion after his chance encounter with a Russian woman seeking help in defecting in exchange for sensitive information.   Ian Richardson of FROM HELL plays Circus inner-circle member Bill Haydon, and Ian Bannen is outstanding as the unfortunate Prideaux, who takes up teaching at a boys' school until he's sufficiently recovered from his wounds to seek revenge. 

Joss Ackland (LETHAL WEAPON 2, HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER) appears briefly as an old friend of Smiley.  As "Karla", a young, dark-haired (but already bald as a cueball) Patrick Stewart displays considerable bad-ass presence during an interrogation scene in which he doesn't speak a single word.

The film has the usual early-BBC filmed look, which is perfect for the dark and rather dreary world in which these agents operate.  Direction by John Irvin is lean and efficient.  Geoffrey Burgon's cello-heavy original score helps push the suspense along very nicely.

The three-disc DVD set (approx. 324 min.) from Acorn Media is in 4:3 full-screen with Dolby Digital sound, with closed-captioning but no subtitles.  Extras include a 28-minute interview with John le Carré along with text-based production notes, cast filmographies, a glossary of main characters and terms, and a le Carré biography and booklist.

Whereas the 007 films serve as flamboyant, thrill-packed eye candy, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY takes us on a gripping and mentally stimulating journey through the cigarette-smoke and stale-coffee netherworld of spydom.  Once I got my head around all the myriad characters and subplots I found it to be one of the most richly rewarding films of its kind that I've ever seen. 

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