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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

SMILEY'S PEOPLE -- DVD review by porfle

If someone were to walk in on you watching the last ten minutes of SMILEY'S PEOPLE (1982), they'd have no idea that it was the exciting conclusion to a six-part BBC spy thriller and that you were on the edge of your seat in suspense.  John le Carre's story is one of the most low-key and relatively static of spy thrillers that you'll ever come across, yet in its own modest way it is as powerfully engaging and full of intrigue as one of the early Bond films.

That exciting conclusion, which consists solely of some people waiting patiently for a man to walk across a bridge at night, comes at the end of a long and arduous investigation by former British intelligence agent George Smiley.  Alec Guinness, once again playing the role to perfection as he did in the previous series TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (1979), shows remarkable restraint throughout his portrayal of the withdrawn, meticulous, and emotionally distant protagonist.

This time, the murder of an elderly Russian double agent who once worked for the British (Curd Jergens as "The General") threatens to open up a can of worms that the British government wants to stay closed.  Their supercilious liason, Lacon (Anthony Bate), enlists the retired Smiley to wrap the matter up discreetly, but when it's revealed to be merely one element in a conspiracy involving Smiley's old nemesis Karla, the Russian intelligence mastermind whom he once dedicated his life to apprehending, then all bets are off. 

Smiley's rogue investigation takes him through a maze of mystery involving current and former agents and peripheral characters who each hold some clue that he must discern in his doggedly persistent manner.  One of them is a Russian woman (Eileen Atkins) who defected to France years ago but is being lured back by the promise of a reunion with the daughter she abandoned, the offer coming from a vile little man named Oleg Kirov (Dudley Sutton) with sinister ulterior motives.  Another is The General's lieutenant, Otto Liepzig (Vladek Sheybal, best known as SPECTRE agent Kronsteen in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE), who holds damning evidence against Kirov that could turn the tide in Smiley's favor.

Since it isn't dependent on action to maintain our interest, the aptly-named SMILEY'S PEOPLE gets its strength from Smiley's often riveting dialogues.  Beryl Reid is once again the crotchety old Connie Sachs, whose photographic memory Smiley mines for information during a melancholy afternoon in her retirement hovel, while Bernard Hepton returns in a marvelous performance as old inner-circle colleague Toby Esterhaus, a key ally itching to get back into the game.  Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt make small but welcome appearances as The General's devoted staff. 

As current head of intelligence Saul Enderby, Barry Foster's delightfully impish performance turns a top-secret bull session between Smiley and his former associates into an amusing sequence filled with subtle wit.  Best of all, perhaps, is Michael Lonsdale (MOONRAKER) as the henpecked Grigoriev, an unwitting pawn in Karla's mysterious scheme.  His capture and subsequent interrogation by Smiley and Esterhaus provides some of the most scintillating dialogue in the entire series, with Lonsdale's twitchy performance a joy to watch.  There's a nice bit of symbolism when Grigoriev is slowly surrounded by Esterhaus' team just as the pieces in the chess game he's watching surround their oppenent's king.

The key attraction of the series, of course, is Guinness.  Where a faster-paced film might cut briskly from one dialogue scene to the next, this story is as much about Smiley himself as anything--how he gets from one place to another, what he does when he gets there, and what thoughts and feelings we can read on his face during moments of contemplation.  We're interested in how he deals with people in a seemingly impersonal manner even as they try to make a personal connection to him, and wonder how much emotion he's suppressing or if he's even feeling anything at all.  This is especially true when he meets with his estranged wife Ann (Sian Phillips, DUNE), who once had an affair with a fellow agent, and treats her in a calculated way that gives little hint of what lies beneath the surface.

While less complicated and dense as its predecessor, and lacking its sheer number of characters and plot points to juggle, SMILEY'S PEOPLE is nevertheless the kind of mentally involving story that demands careful attention lest the viewer be lost.  This, of course, is one of the things that makes it such a satisfying watch as we weave our way along the investigative trail with the main character.  John Hopkins' screen adaptation of the novel is delectable, and Simon Langton directs in an unobtrusive but keenly capable style.  The stately score by Patrick Gowers is a perfect compliment to the somber, "Cold War Europe" mood of the series. 

The three-disc set from Acorn Media is in 4:3 fullscreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  Extras include an interview with John le Carre, a biography of the author, filmographies, and production notes.

The fascinating George Smiley, so aloof and efficient throughout SMILEY'S PEOPLE, allows his fascade to slip ever so slightly at the prospect of ensnaring the elusive Karla (once again strongly portrayed by Patrick Stewart without a single word of dialogue) after so many years.  The prospect is so overwhelming, it even seems painful for him to bear.  Unlike Ahab, however, Smiley is less apt to self-destruct when denied his prey as much as he'd simply fade slowly out of existence.  But this sharp old former spy is too cunning, and much too solid, to let that happen.

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