There's no denying the fact that the BBC's 1979 television adaptation of John le Carré's novel 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is a difficult and challenging series, but fans of the novel and of le Carré's work in general should be more than thrilled to see the densely complex story brought to life with terrific detail and authenticity. This is a show which demands that its viewers listen carefully to every conversation and utterance. Much like the real life of a spy, the smallest, most seemingly-fruitless piece of information could mean the difference between the security of a nation and its downfall.
Revealing the inner-workings of intelligence-gathering, and the high-risk stakes placed on protecting one's country, the show dispels the glamourized fantasy adventures of secret agents. From its opening moments, we are instantly immersed into the dark, anxiety-ridden world of espionage, where even a scheduled meeting between the head officers inside a bland room fills with tension. There is no idolized, operatic display of hand-to-hand combat or gun-fights. This is an environment where a single glare of the eyes is just as nerve-wracking as looking down the barrel of a gun, where literally no person can be trusted, not even those believed to be intimate friends.
This is the life of a spy — dreary, shadowy, terribly pessimistic, and frightfully lonely. No one in 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' encompasses this thankless existence better than our would-be hero, George Smiley. Played exquisitely by Sir Alec Guinness, who is probably best remembered as Obi-Wan Kenobi, the character is methodical, highly systematic, and extraordinarily patient. Under Guiness' expertise, Smiley appears remote and indifferent on the outside, never cluing us and others around him in when he is provoked or troubled. Behind his blank stares, the man is constantly thinking, calculating, and reasoning through information as it becomes available.
On the surface, we follow Smiley as he is brought out of a forced retirement in order to hunt down a mole in the upper ranks of the "Circus," an ironic codename for MI6 given the current plot. With the valued assistance of Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston), Smiley sifts through various bits of information, peeling away and examining layers, patterns, and connections, in order to slowly expose a deadly game of wits. But while the discovery of that double agent keeps us invested, culminating in a fast-paced and exciting conclusion, the real genius of the story lies in the brief glimpses into the lives of these clandestine spies. On top of that, there's a recurring theme of the hard-nosed, traditional methods for intelligence gathering versus the younger, more career-oriented generation.
This miniseries is a finely made adaptation of a labyrinthine puzzle that's as terrifically engaging as it is thoroughly complex. The opening credits to each episode feature a matryoshka doll, showing one angrier than the former, up to the final, faceless figurine, is one of the most fitting ever devised. It aptly and brilliantly alludes to the game played between different intelligence establishments, gradually uncovering one secret after another, while the final reveals the empty rewards. The memorable show is a mesmerizing and moody tale of high-stakes intrigue which fans of true espionage genre entries can relish for many years to come. And here's hoping one day, we'll see the original seven-part series as enjoyed in the U.K.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Acorn Media brings 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' to Blu-ray as a two-disc package with a cardboard slipcover. Inside a blue amaray keepcase on opposing panels, the two are Region Free, BD-50 discs with each containing three episodes. After a brief promo piece for the distribution company, viewers are greeted by a fairly standard main menu window with music and full-motion clips. The second disc also contains all the special features.
Given the fact that the miniseries was shot on 16mm film, not much could possibly be done to make the show look any better than it does on Blu-ray. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the AVC MPEG-4 encode is presented in 1080i/60 video and isn't all that pretty, with fairly weak black levels and below average shadow delineation. The picture is peppered with film grain which tends to fluctuate from one scene to the next in the early episodes, with the worst being nighttime sequences. Clarity however, seems a bit more consistent as the image displays decently sharp details in and around the various locations. Facial complexions, in particular, show the wrinkles and pores of actors rather nicely, and the overall quality of the image improves in the last two parts. Contrast is somewhat dull and disappointing, and the color palette is flat and listless. It's very likely the show was not remastered extensively or that the elements used are not of the utmost quality.
The audio, unfortunately, is not much different, offered only in legacy 2.0 Dolby Digital on this Blu-ray release. Not that something the likes of immersive surround sound could be expected from a 30-year-plus television series, but it's pretty clear the original elements weren't given a full restoration either. Granted, dialogue is quite perceptible and well-prioritized, as it should be, yet amid all the dense and intricate conversations, we catch a bit of noise and hiss in the background, which also sometimes seem attached to the voices of actors. The lossless mix is very well contained in the center of the screen, and discrete ambient effects are cleanly delivered. The mid-range is limited but remains detailed with decent low-bass levels, and Geoffrey Burgon's original score suffers from the same hissing on the upper end as the vocals.
Acorn Media ports over the same assortment of supplements as the DVD release from a couple years back.
John le Carré's classic espionage thriller, 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,' is brought to life in this densely complex and labyrinthine miniseries about the hunt for a double agent within the high-ranks of MI6. Starring the impeccable Alec Guinness as George Smiley, the series is a marvelously involving show, which patiently builds up to a tense, exciting finale. The Blu-ray features an improved audio and video presentation, but it doesn't quite live up to the expectations of the high-def format, which is likely due to the limitations of the source elements. Bonus material is ported over from the DVD but also includes two new exclusives, making the overall package well-worth the purchase for fans. Recommended.