If I were BBC Director-General, and had been granted only 24 broadcast hours to make the case to the nation and its elected officials that my organisation was capable of greatness, I would immediately fill the first 315 minutes of my schedule with 1979’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
This is what a television mini-series can do that is virtually impossible in the movie theater: Tell a long, complex, intimate story over a series of episodes that hang together, and in which the audience being forced to wait for the resolution adds to the exquisite tension of the tale. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also the apotheosis of what BBC can do better than any other organisation when it sets its mind to it: Trawl through the British theater for stage-trained, perfectly cast actors to play parts large and small, give them a quintessentially British script, and spend a TV-level budget in just the right way to get the sets and production that are “tailor made” (sorry, couldn’t pass that up) for the story. The result is BBC television magic.
The plot: The aging head of the British Secret Service, dogged by a series of espionage failures and declining health, sends out a trusted agent on a mission to Czechoslovakia that will help smoke out a high-level mole who is working for the Soviets. The mission goes horribly wrong, almost as if the enemy knew of it in advance. A different group of agents ascends to control of the service, and casts out along the way faithful, long-serving head of personnel George Smiley. But the politician who oversee the service believes the mole is still active, and recruits Smiley out of retirement to covertly investigate his former colleagues. With glum professionalism, and the aid of an embittered assassin who has been demoted, he slowly draws on the loose strings that he hopes will lead him to the mole’s identity.
I am no expert on John le Carré, but his passionate fans embraced this production as assiduously faithful to the book. Indeed, the man himself said that after viewing the mini-series, he could no longer think about Smiley without visualizing Alec Guinness.
Many people say Sir Alec was “born to play” spymaster George Smiley. But people said that about many of the parts he played in his career, a tribute to his genius as an actor. I love all the small things he does in this movie: Wiping his glasses on his tie, locking his flat door behind him without looking, wincing almost imperceptibly at the mention of his wayward wife. And he never commits the dramatic error of trying to make Smiley normal or likable. As his former wife says to him in the crucial final scene, he doesn’t understand life very well at all, he is strangely emotionally detached and not someone you’d want to have over to dinner. Unlike many of the people around him, he still seems to hold his country in some regard, but even that explanation doesn’t seem to fully explain why he takes on the difficult mission which he is assigned.
I frankly think this movie is no less enjoyable if you know in advance (from the book or from prior viewings) the mole’s identity. The story is about institutional rot, collective lassitude and endemic careerism. Yes, one man is particularly guilty but in various ways, every one of the key suspects has much of which to be ashamed.
Director John Irvin was at the peak of his skills in the late 1970s, helming this series and The Dogs of War immediately afterwards. His career seemed to stall after those two triumphs, but he certainly delivers the goods here. Irvin had a champagne cast with which to work, not just Guinness. The actors are so uniformly fine that it seems an injustice to single out particular performers, but I will nonetheless take the risk to applaud Ian Richardson as Deputy Director Bill Haydon, who defeats Smiley in bureaucratic battles and does something even more horrid to him on the home front. How in the name of The Queen, St. Michael and St. George was this magnificent actor never knighted? Perhaps it was the suddenness of his death when he seemed in rude health…if so that’s a case for honoring people when they deserve it rather than waiting until they are “old enough”.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a million miles from the heroic James Bond-sort of secret agent picture. There are no car chases, fist fights or explosions. There instead is the gritty, slimy work of espionage, the grind of a meticulous investigation and the guessing and re-guessing of who can be trusted and who is a villain. Yet even with a running time of more than 5 hours, it never loses the viewer’s interest. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some people who own it on DVD devour it in one or two sittings.
p.s. I am given to understand that the US rebroadcast version of this mini-series is shorter than the UK original and also makes some narrative changes. Not having viewed it, I do not know how it compares to the version I review here.