British spy George Smiley remains the most compelling character to spring from author John le Carré's fertile imagination. Yet the author himself once said that Sir Alec Guinness made Smiley his own. Produced for British television in 1979, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ranks high on the shortlist of adaptations that rise fully to the source material's challenges, thanks in no small part to Guinness. Part spy thriller, part procedural, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its splendid sequel, Smiley's People, afford deeply intelligent and satisfying escapes into the golden age of Cold War espionage. While low on bonus materials, the DVDs remain high -- very high -- on acting, intrigue, and morality.
Complex but compelling, this miniseries is based upon one of John Le Carré's greatest works and serves as a grand summing-up for the late Sir Alec Guinness, one of Britain's greatest actors. Guinness literally is Smiley: Le Carré said that Guinness served as a template for the character's cunning and mournful rectitude. In anyone else's hands, Smiley might have seemed a blank and lifeless character, but Guinness' matchless ability to play within a scene while seeming to think well beyond it is magnetic. Guinness was the great everyman and underplayer of the generation that gave us such great British Shakespearean actors as Olivier, Richardson, and Gielgud. He's helped, too, by sharp dialogue lifted almost word-for-word from the book and terrific supporting performances (particularly an entirely silent but amazingly communicative Patrick Stewart, who has a cameo as Karla), which almost entirely obscure the fact that the miniseries largely consists of people sitting in rooms talking. It's a literate treat that brings to life the gray morality and conflicting loyalties of the Cold War. Be advised: viewers can get lost in the intricate plot if they don't pay close attention.