Good actors have played George Smiley before and since, including Rupert Davies, James Mason, and Denholm Elliott, but Guinness's performances in the two TV miniseries created a minor sensation in both Britain and America and for decades was the gold standard. Like Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, for a long time it was hard to imagine anyone else in the role until Gary Oldman's fine George Smiley in the 2011 feature film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, for which Oldman received an Academy Award nomination.
As with le Carré's stories generally, the two Guinness shows tend to polarize viewers. As spy stories they are the antitheses of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, let alone the Roger Moore pun-fest fantasies being made simultaneous with the two Guinness adaptations. The first ran seven one-hour episodes and Smiley's People is nearly as long, six episodes with a total running time of about five-and-a-half hours.
The great length allows the already methodical narrative to unfold almost like an unabridged book. For some, the George Smiley shows are painfully show and uneventful, yet at the same time exceedingly, almost maddeningly complex. The storylines are labyrinthine, seemingly impenetrable for long stretches. They are however, subtle, logical, and rewarding for patient and attentive viewers. As I often do when seeing films or stage productions of less-familiar Shakespeare, watching Smiley's People I printed out a plot synopsis I could refer to when I felt totally lost. The episodes themselves don't offer recaps, so in that sense it proved especially invaluable. The Blu-ray includes a "glossary of main characters and terms" that's also helpful but that contains major spoilers and is better avoided.
I believe until very recently the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) claimed Smiley's People was photographed in 35mm, but now it correctly lists this as a 16mm production, the British standard for higher-end projects of that period. (Other series were shot on tape, or a combination of videotaped interiors and 16mm-filmed exteriors.)
I've been extremely impressed, even astounded, by the high-definition transfers of most 16mm productions on Blu-ray so far, having seen, among others, the pilot and first season of The Sweeney (1975), The Adventures and The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1984-86), several seasons of Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-), and Pride and Prejudice (1995). All of those have looked very good to spectacularly great, making as serious a landmark as Smiley's People all the more disappointing. It's not unwatchable, but where I'd give all those other shows earn four- to five-star ratings, video-wise, this gets a tepid two. I've not seen the Blu-ray of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but by all accounts that video transfer is similarly bad.
Anyone out there know why? The series was a co-production between the BBC and Paramount Pictures (Paramount's TV logo is seen at the end of some episodes) and it's possible distributor RLJ Entertainment had access to one studio's masters but not the other, and definitely not the one with the original camera negatives. Regardless, there's a second-generation dupey quality to the transfer that disappoints, especially when one considers just how good this Euro-trotting production could and should look.
A Soviet émigré, Maria Ostrakova (Eileen Atkins), now a late middle-aged working-class woman in Paris, is mysteriously approached by a Soviet agent encouraging/threatening her to apply for the political asylum and French citizenship of her long-lost daughter, Alexandra. She follows his instructions but when the daughter fails to turn up she writes a letter to General Vladimir (Curd Jürgens, who died shortly before the series premiered), a retired covert British agent (his colleagues are portrayed by genre veterans Michael Gough and Ingrid Pitt). Vladimir believes the plot a ruse by KGB spymaster Karla (Patrick Stewart) to establish a false identity for a Soviet woman, for her to live somewhere (and perhaps receive large sums of money) in free Europe.
Unaware that his former senior case officer, George Smiley (Alec Guinness), has retired, Vladimir contacts the "Circus" (MI6) requesting a meeting with him in London, but before this can be arranged Vladimir is brutally murdered. Smiley is recalled but only to confirm Vladimir's misperceived motives and quash any chance that his death might expose the Circus to scandal. Smiley, however, takes Vladimir's attempts to contact MI6 far more seriously, and most of the miniseries follows his efforts to determine what it all means.
Filmed all over England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, Smiley's People is a low-key epic with a peerless cast. Besides Guinness, Atkins, Gough, Pitt, Jürgens, and, briefly, Stewart, the esteemed international players include Beryl Reid, Bill Patterson, Vladek Sheybal, Mario Adorf, Michael Lonsdale, Barry Foster, and Rosalie Crutchley.
Guinness, of course, is wonderful, bearing in mind that so much of his performance relies on his not reacting to clues sometimes accidentally or intentionally dropped in his lap, that he's deceiving the people he chatting with while subtly conveying to the audience his internal, unstated observations. And, because Guinness is so good in the role, he's even sometimes slyly witty while being enigmatic at the same time, reacting with amusement or disgust to sloppy spying by the Soviets or the moral decline of his own country's intelligence network stemming from the younger generation of agents.
Video & Audio
See also above for my comments concerning this release. Though photographed in 16mm, Smiley's People should not look as bad as it does. It's not VHS-level, but rather a decent 1080i transfer of third-rate elements. By comparison, much older 16mm episodes of The Sweeney look and sound spectacularly good for 16mm in high-def; indeed they're a revelation, movie-like, and a real pleasure to watch. The transfers here would get poor marks if it were a DVD. Anyone with information on the status of the original elements and the reasons for these poor transfers is encouraged to write. The DTS-HD Master 2.0 Audio, mono English only, is a bit better. Thankfully, optional English subtitles are included.
Supplements include a whopping 62 minutes of deleted scenes that I've only had the opportunity to scan. The interview with John le Carré (20 minutes) is ported over from an earlier DVD release and is 16:9 enhanced. Text extras include the aforementioned glossary and a le Carré biography and booklist.
Challenging but hugely rewarding, Smiley's People is one of the best spy dramas ever made, while this Blu-ray release offers the worst high-def presentation I've yet seen derived from a 16mm television series. A remastered edition seems mandatory down the road, but until then, for the quality of the show alone, this is Recommended.