Smiley's People Blu-ray Review
More Smiley, Less Smiling
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, July 23, 2013
After the success of the 1979 TV miniseries adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier
, its producers were eager for a sequel. Le Carré had written two more novels featuring the
cerebral Cold War master of espionage, George Smiley, but the middle volume of the series, The
, was deemed too expensive to adapt because of its Far East setting.
Instead, producer John Powell turned to the third book in the so-called "Karla Trilogy" (named
after Smiley's chief adversary in Soviet intelligence), entitled Smiley's People
. Smiley was once
again played by Sir Alec Guinness, and several familiar faces from Tinker Tailor
(A few roles had to be recast, when the original actors were not available.) As on Tinker Tailor
le Carré assisted in writing the script, although principal responsibility for the adaptation fell to
writer John Hopkins (ironically, one of the screenwriters on the film adaptation of a very different
kind of spy story, Thunderball
aired on the BBC in six parts from September
20 through October 22, 1982. It began airing on PBS in the U.S. three days later.
has mysteries, but it doesn't offer anything like the puzzle game of Tinker
's mole hunt. What it offers is a sense of resolution, as Smiley and his life-long nemesis
play out their last game across the European continent, even while the passage of time threatens
to render them both irrelevant. Leadership of the Western forces in the Cold War now rests
firmly with the American CIA, and Smiley's old outfit, informally known as "the Circus", is still
licking its wounds from the damage inflicted by Karla in Tinker Tailor
and a power struggle that
ensued after Smiley took over, on a temporary basis, at the conclusion of that story. Meanwhile,
Karla's position in "Moscow Centre", as the Circus refers to KGB headquarters, may not be as
secure as it once was. In just a few years' time, the Gorbachev era will commence, with its calls
for "glasnost" and "perestroika". For a fanatic like Karla, it will not be a good time. (One has to
wonder what he would think of Vladimir Putin's post-Soviet Russia.)
The following discussion assumes familiarity with Tinker Tailor
in one form or
another (novel, TV miniseries or the 2011 film
Gary Oldman). If you do not already
know the plot of Tinker Tailor
, read further at your own risk.
The story begins in Paris with an émigré from the Soviet republic of Estonia, Madame Ostrakova
(Eileen Atkins), who is contacted on different occasions by two different Russians about the
illegitimate daughter, Alexandra, whom she abandoned in the Soviet Union when she defected to
the West. One of the Russians, Oleg Kirov (Dudley Sutton), is plump, officious and intimidating.
The other, Otto Leipzig (Vladek Sheybal), is sleek, charming and reassuring.
Madame Ostrakova maintains contact with a general in London named Vladimir (Curd Jürgens,
in his final role), a former double agent for the Circus, who is the unofficial head of all Estonians
who have fled or escaped from Soviet tyranny. The General, who has been retired from
espionage for some years, takes great interest in these accounts from Paris; indeed, it is the
General who dispatched Leipzig to see Madame Ostrakova after she wrote to him about her
strange communications with Kirov.
One day, the General contacts the Circus on the so-called "lifeline", a telephone reserved for
communications by inactive agents. The call is taken by Nigel Mostyn (Stephen Riddle), a young
Circus agent on the staff of the communications center known informally as "Oddbins". The
General demands to speak to his old handler, "Max". When Mostyn types the code name "Max"
into the decrypter, it returns the real name: George Smiley. The General demands a meeting
according to "Moscow rules". "Tell Max it concerns the Sandman", he says.
Mostyn is not at liberty to disclose that Smiley is retired (again), but he arranges the meeting.
Before anyone can speak to the General, however, his body is found in a manner that Smiley recognizes,
when he accompanies the police to the scene, as a traditional Soviet method of execution. What
did the General want to tell him about "the Sandman" (a/k/a Karla)?
The consensus among the Wise Men—the new oversight committee formed to supervise the
Circus—is that the General just wanted attention, and Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate), the same
minister who asked Smiley's help tracking down the mole in Tinker Tailor
, turns to him once
again. But Lacon's attitude is much changed under the regime of the Circus' new head, Saul
Enderby (Barry Foster). Unlike Smiley, Lacon and Enderby don't care what the General had to
say. They just want the whole mess to go away:
You know who his buddies are, who he hunted with. Speak to them. If there's any milk been
spilt, I trust you to get it back into the bottle. You're his executor, George. Tidy him up. Keep us out of it.
And don't wander.
For almost two thirds of Smiley's People
, Smiley is on his own, retracing the General's steps,
reconstructing whatever it was the secretive ex-pat wished to tell him. In the process, he consults
his former head of research, Connie Sachs (Beryl Reid), now ailing and retired to a cottage near
Oxford, whom Smiley plies with whisky to get what he wants, even though he knows it isn't
good for her. He also consults his former colleague, Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton)—dubbed
"Poorman" during Tinker Tailor
's mole hunt—who, like Smiley, is also retired from the Circus
and trying to pass as an art and antiques dealer in London. Smiley makes the rounds of the General's network
and eventually finds himself in Hamburg, sitting in a sex club owned by one Claus Kretzschmar
(Mario Adorf), a partner of Otto Leipzig, the man whom the General sent to meet with Madame
Ostrakova in Paris. Eventually, he meets her too, though she is, by that point, much the worse for
wear, after surviving an attempt on her life.
It is in Paris that Smiley reconnects with his old comrade-in-arms from their mole-hunting days,
Peter Guillam (now played by Michael Byrne). Currently working under diplomatic cover at the
British embassy, Guillam arranges protection for Madame Ostrakova and transport to London for
the sensitive materials that Smiley has gathered on his search. Smiley has collected enough hard
evidence to convince Enderby of what Smiley knew all along: namely, that General Vladimir had
something substantial to offer—a solid lead on their old enemy, Karla (Patrick Stewart), solid
enough that Karla had him killed for it. Backed now by some measure of Circus support, Smiley
sets off to end Karla's reign for good, but in his own delicately precise manner (or, as he puts it, "with the minimum of force"). Once upon a
time, as recounted in Tinker Tailor
, Smiley tried to persuade Karla to defect to the West. Now he
sees an opportunity to complete that task and, in the bargain, gain a treasure trove of information.
But one misstep, and his quarry will vanish.
is every bit as intricate and elusive (and sometimes as frustrating to follow) as
, but the real pleasure of the series is watching Alec Guinness inhabit this
inscrutably severe character with whom he had become so closely identified that even Smiley's
creator, John le Carré, found it difficult to separate them. The Smiley of Smiley's People
even tougher nut than the relentless mole-hunter of Tinker Tailor
. Having been duped so
thoroughly by a trusted colleague who used his fondness for his wife, Ann (Siân Phillips), as a
weapon, Smiley has shed every last trace of emotion or sentiment. Now, when people ask after
his wife, Smiley responds with easy pleasantries, as if everything were normal. In fact, the
marriage is over and Ann lives with relatives in the country, but Smiley no longer cares. He goes
to visit Ann briefly before departing for his final reckoning with Karla, but it's a courtesy call, a
warning to stay out of London until the business is concluded, just in case anyone is tempted to
take hostages. His demeanor is so different from the meeting with Ann in Tinker Tailor
can feel the chill in the air. (Ann certainly does.)
Whether manipulating Otto Leipzig's Hamburg business partner into disclosing information, or
prying details out of the late General Vladimir's adjutant, Mikhel (Michael Gough), before
threatening him with disaster if he doesn't keep silent, or intimidating a Russian diplomat named
Grigoriev (Michael Lonsdale) into betraying his country, Smiley is even-toned, efficient and
utterly ruthless. Grigoriev pays him the highest compliment, and also, without realizing it, issues
the harshest judgment, when he tells Smiley that he reminds Grigoriev of Karla himself.