The sort of spycraft and espionage depicted in the works of John le Carré is markedly different from the brand seen in the books and films involving characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne. For one thing, there's little or no action to speak of; nary a punch is ever thrown, let alone the persistent use of deadly force via Walther PPK, exploding pens or garrote wire hidden inside a timepiece. The world of John le Carré is an isolated, monitored existence where the weapon of choice is a potent combination of loyalty and information, and those who are most skilled at wielding one of those elements (usually in an effort to procure the other) typically find themselves in positions made increasingly difficult by the efforts of those working with and against them.
Of le Carré's lengthy list of acclaimed novels (many of which have been turned into films/mini-series of equal acclaim) it is possible that the trilogy (unofficially known as the "Karla Trilogy") – which consists of 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', 'The Honourable Schoolboy' and, for the purposes of this review, 'Smiley's People' – ranks as some of the author's most highly praised and often referenced work. Certainly, a great deal of this has to do with the attention granted to the character of George Smiley, thanks largely to the performance of Sir Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC mini-series adaptation of 'Tinker, Tailor,' and, in 2011, when the book was adapted again, this time placing Gary Oldman in the role of Smiley (for which he earned his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination).
And while an adaptation of 'The Honourable Schoolboy' seems to be a wish unlikely to be fulfilled anytime soon, the BBC did make good on their effort to set Smiley's large-framed spectacles upon Guinness' subtly-expressive face one more time by pulling the venerable actor back into Circus and the quest to find his long-time Soviet rival, Karla, with the 6-episode mini-series 'Smiley's People.'
Taking place roughly two years after the events in 'Tinker, Tailor,' 'Smiley's People' sees George Smiley once again not-so-happily retired, living a quiet existence as the former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, when the assassination of a former Soviet asset named Vladimir (Curd Jürgens) raises a red flag and Smiley's knowledge and expertise are called upon to assist in the investigation. A little older, a little more cynical, Smiley doggedly probes Vladimir's final days, while dodging inquiries from his successor, Saul Enderby (Barry Foster), and generally poking his nose into matters of international conspiracy and uncovering a sordid tale of an Estonian émigré with ties to Karla, whose defection from Russia forced her to leave behind an illegitimate daughter named Alexandra decades earlier.
The narrative of 'Smiley's People' does what most of le Carré's best work manages on a regular basis: it takes high-stakes Cold War spycraft, and manages to make it work and feel relevant and captivating on a smaller, more character-driven level. Smiley uncovers bits of information, questioning burned-out ex-spies, foreign diplomats and semi-retired Circus-folk by pillaging their minds like some dapper home invader, indiscriminately turning over boxes of memories they'd rather have just forgotten, or previously convinced themselves they would die to protect. George's methods are acute and focused, and much to his surprise, deliver him closer to Karla (or "Sandman," as Gen. Vladimir had taken to calling him) than ever before. As this would end up being the penultimate Smiley story, le Carré fills it with a potent mixture of the joy brought about by sought-after accomplishment and the quiet malaise that quickly transforms a task well done into a sucking void conveying only the inevitable irrelevance that comes with age and the inexorable passage of time.
As such, the mini-series is as much a plot-driven espionage thriller as it is a character study of those whose lives are lived largely in the periphery; unsung individuals for whom information is everything; men and women who could turn people into assets the way an alchemist claimed to turn lead into gold. And in this case, the role of George Smiley feels particularly lived-in by Guinness. The famed actor wholly embodies the aging spy and gives a bravura performance that intuitively expresses more about what the character is thinking with a shift of the mouth or raise of the eyebrow than other actors can do with an entire script at their disposal. Smiley's controlled anger at his estranged wife's infidelities is expressed far less confidently than his exasperation at the unnecessary bureaucracy and foolishness of those technically above him in his professional endeavors. And the moment he confronts Lady Ann for what could be the last time, Guinness places a delicate inflection on the word he uses to describe his feelings for her and the effect is devastating.
Much of the success of 'Smiley's People' has to do with the fact that, unlike BBC's 'Tinker, Tailor,' le Carré himself was onboard to co-write the screenplay with John Hopkins. To that end, le Carré pleases his hardcore fans and creates an authentic feel to the proceedings with his jargon-heavy dialogue that sounds less like someone playing at spycraft and more like a person living it.
With its authentic feel and incredibly satisfying slow-burn pace, 'Smiley's People' is the kind of television the BBC excelled at years before the current golden age of television began over here in the United States. This is an incredibly involving story you don't so much watch as you simply absorb…or become simply absorbed by.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Smiley's People' hails from Acorn Media as a two, 50GB disc set that comes in the standard two-disc keepcase. There is an outer sleeve that displays the same cover art as the case. Additionally, there is a small, two-page booklet that contains a "glossary of main characters and terms" to assist those unfamiliar with the incredibly dense work, or who just want to know more about the many, many characters seen in the program.
'Smiley's People' may come off as something of a disappointment for those hoping the mini-series would have been given the full HD treatment prior to its release on Blu-ray. While the image maintains the original 4:3 aspect ratio, the transfer is a rather lackluster 1080i AVC/MPEG-4 codec that might not have been an issue had the series undergone some form of restoration. As it stands now, it looks as though nothing was done to improve the quality of the image from when it was initially aired on BBC back in 1982.
Overall, the image is middling; it doesn't necessarily ruin the presentation, but colors are largely dull, detail is occasionally scant and there is a considerable amount of noise and visual artifacts that pop up with great regularity. Although uncommon for BBC at the time, 'Smiley's People' was actually shot on 16mm, which means there is a good deal of consistently present grain on the picture that also plays into some of the image's lack of fine detail. However, the grain actually adds to the overall ambiance of the presentation and helps to make it feel legitimately of a specific place and time. Conversely, that specific time is largely responsible for the degradation of the image and although it certainly feels authentic, some sort of restoration or cleaning of the image would have been great to see.
The sound was given a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix that is sadly very weak and unimpressive. Whereas the picture shows clear signs of aging, it still managed to make the image presentable enough that the episodes were watchable and brought about a kind of nostalgia for a time when everything wasn't crisp and pristine or occasionally too sterile. The sound, however, is an anemic affair that makes le Carré's nearly impenetrable dialogue even more difficult to decipher – which says nothing of the moments when the shoddily balanced musical score slams down on the actor's lines like an iron curtain.
While it takes some tinkering, there is a magic number on the volume that will give an adequate balance between the dialogue, score and atmospheric sound elements that the mix has to offer. Most of it is unimpressive as far as sound goes, however – this isn't exactly a fast-paced affair where certain elements generate an immersive effect, or place the viewer in an exciting action sequence. The driving force of the audio mix is the character dialogue and this transfer does a middling job at best, as the dialogue (and everything else) is primarily forced through the front speakers with little in the way of dynamic range on display. Much of this can (again) be attributed to the age of the program, but, like the image, some work to punch the sound up and make it more suitable for modern devices would have been greatly appreciated.
'Smiley's People' contains a selection of deleted scenes by episode, some of which are particularly extensive – like episode 1, where there was a great deal of set-up required. For the most part, the deleted scenes are extended takes on lengthy bits of exposition, or they are exterior shots used to inform the viewer of a change in time or place within the episode. The following is a listing of how long each episode's deleted scenes are.
The name John le Carré is synonymous with dense, complex, and richly rewarding tales of spycraft and international intrigue, and 'Smiley's People' is certainly one of the best examples of this. Although it's a sequel, the mini-series is just as taut, cleverly written, and superbly acted as 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy' and is worthy of a second (or more) viewing for those who have already partaken, and should be considered required viewing for those who have not. While the meager sound and image quality certainly put a damper on the presentation, this is one of the rare instances where the story is so entertaining and spotlessly performed that it comes recommended despite such drawbacks.