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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Acorn Media // Unrated // October 7, 2002
List Price: $69.95 [Buy now and save at Acornonline]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted October 23, 2002 | E-mail the Author
Cloak and dagger. Smoke and mirrors. The phrases we use to talk about spy stories are suggestive of their content, in which all is not as it seems. Unfortunately, in the case of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the catchphrase "smoke and mirrors" seems to evoke not just the style, but also the content of the production, in which despite the misdirection attempted by the evocative atmosphere and moody cinematography, the story muddles tediously along on the way to nowhere interesting.

If you are a fan of John Le Carré, you have probably already decided that I am a raving maniac for not adoring Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the British miniseries adapted from his novel of the same name. But indeed if you are an enthusiastic reader of John Le Carré's spy novels, particularly those featuring the character of George Smiley, then you may find Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be a satisfactory viewing experience. It has the feel of a production that's adapted straight, word-for-word, from its source novel, and as such it may please readers of the novel to see the written events presented visually.

However, that's a very big "if." I myself very much wanted to like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; I enjoy films that require an active brain, and it had the look of an intelligent spy thriller. But in the end, it was nothing but a gigantic letdown, a deeply unsatisfactory production on many levels.

Anyone who comes to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy without some background in Le Carré's setting will be sadly adrift. The story is awash with characters, many of whom are never introduced and others who are glimpsed early on and don't reappear until much later. One of the advantages a novel has over the screen in handling a large cast is that in written text, a character can be introduced by name and information can be provided about him even if he or she is alone, whereas in film, a character by himself is a cipher; we only find out who he is from other people talking about him. There's an awful lot of this going on in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: we see various unnamed characters going about mysterious business, and we witness various other characters talking about other people, but we have no way to associate names and identities with the proper people. If you know ahead of time who the characters are, you'll have half a chance at keeping them straight; otherwise, there's just not enough context provided to follow what's going on.

The script is also loaded with "spy slang," making ordinary dialogue into an at-times unbreakable code, and the enormously complicated setting is never properly explained. The "Circus" is British Intelligence, or at least part of it; there is also "The Ministry" and "London Station," which may or may not be associated with or parts of the Circus; it's certainly not clear from what's happening on screen. We also get "scalphunters," "lamplighters," "hoods," and "security boys" whose function is unclear, but apparently necessary to know nonetheless. It's perfectly fine to expect viewers to pick information up from context; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy fails viewers by neglecting to provide adequate context for new information.

The lack of context is only the beginning. Even more fundamental is the fact that the narrative goes nowhere. In the first few minutes of Episode 1, we learn that Control, the head of British Intelligence, has learned of a mole inside the organization, and is sending an agent to Czechoslovakia to find out the mole's identity. In Episode 2, we are introduced to George Smiley (Alec Guinness), who is taken to a meeting of renegade agents to listen to a long and involved story in which it is revealed that there is a mole in the agency. In other words, the entire second episode does nothing to advance the story for the viewer. Then, in Episode 3, an involved series of interviews and searches reveals the information that Control in fact knew about the mole and had sent a man to investigate: a fact that, again, the viewer has known since the first few minutes of Episode 1. In my opinion, it is a fundamental narrative flaw to allow the viewer to get so far ahead of the characters; there's no suspense or even interest in watching Smiley and the others learn what we, the viewers, have clearly known for the past three hours of viewing time.

The problems with the narrative extend beyond the problems in getting to the "meat" of the story. Part of the problem is that the narrative structure is handled exceptionally badly. As one example, the flashbacks in Episode Three are presented in such a way that it's very difficult to know whether the events are taking place in the past (and if so, how long ago) or the present. In other instances, both at the beginning and throughout the production, whole sequences take place whose significance is utterly unclear. It would have been nice if the makers of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had considered that their viewing audience might include people who are not intimately steeped in the lore of spycraft.


Murky-looking and with a dirty print and heavy edge enhancement, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looks dismal. The print doesn't seem to have been cleaned up at all for the DVD release; there's a lot of noise, very distractingly so in many scenes, and scratches and speckles show up consistently throughout the production. The colors are flat, lifeless, and muddy-colored; it's true that the color palette of the production is very subdued, with heavy use of black, gray, and brown, but there's no reason for other colors to look unnatural. Skin tones are irregular, sometimes looking overly reddish, and colors other than brown tend to be overly bright compared to the rest of the scene. It's clear that the cinematography makes extensive use of shadow and darkness to create a mood, but unfortunately the poor contrast means that night-time scenes are often entirely black except where there is direct lighting.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is presented in its original 1.33:1 television aspect ratio.


Music and dialogue aren't quite in balance; the volume on the dialogue is too low compared to the music-only portions of the soundtrack, requiring periodic re-adjustment of the volume. In general, the sound is muffled and flat.


The overall packaging of the set is attractive: a glossy cardboard fold-out holds the three discs in the set, and fits inside a slipcase. An insert inside the case provides a short glossary of spy terms used in the program; obviously it occurred to someone, after the fact, that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was rather confusing.

Menus are also pleasing: we get a straightforward and refreshingly easy to navigate design with a themed background. For special features, on the first disc, we get a thirty-minute filmed interview with author John Le Carré about the adaptation of his novel to the screen; it's an interesting piece, and sure to especially please fans of his novels. There's also a section of filmographies and biographies, and text production notes.

Final thoughts

John Le Carré's novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, upon which the six-hour miniseries is based, features as its main character George Smiley, who is the protagonist of several other works by Le Carré that have also been given a film treatment. A 1965 feature film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starred Richard Burton; there's also Smiley's People, a second miniseries with Guinness as Smiley. Readers of Le Carré's novels may want to consider renting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; depending on their liking for the original novel, it may be exactly what they're looking for. But overall, despite wanting to like it, and in fact making a real effort to like it, my general recommendation is simply to skip this dull and tedious miniseries.






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