Master spy George Smiley is brought out of retirement for one final case in Smiley’s People, the gripping sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Former head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (known as Circus), Smiley is lured back to the spy game by an important contact turning up dead. What starts as a simple investigation quickly becomes a tangled web of deception, ultimately leading to a showdown with Smiley’s Soviet counterpart and archrival, Karla (Patrick Stewart).
After the critical acclaim of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979), it made sense for the BBC to adapt another book in John Le Carré’s best-selling trilogy of espionage novels. Skipping the second book due to cost considerations, Smiley’s People is the final chapter in George Smiley’s television career. The world of Le Carré’s espionage series is firmly grounded in the Cold War. Cold War politics guides and informs Smiley’s People, set across multiple locales in Europe such as Hamburg and Paris.
Smiley is played with elegant poise and mannered perfection by Alec Guinness, one of the greatest British actors of all time. Smiley is the antithesis of James Bond’s dashing coolness. An elderly gentleman with subtle intelligence and keen insight into how others operate, Smiley does not chase rogue agents down for physical confrontation or romance younger women. He is strictly concerned with solving the mystery while not getting his own hands dirty.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s narrative was an elaborate series of Russian nesting dolls, each layer more intricate than the last. If one criticism can be leveled against Smiley’s People, the initial mystery is not as complex or compelling, allowing a laborious pacing at times. It begins when General Vladimir, a defector from the Soviet Union and once a valuable informant for Circus, calls the agency asking to meet only with Max.
Max was Smiley’s former alias when he used to be Vladimir’s handler. Smiley is pulled out of retirement and asked to handle the investigation when Vladimir turns up dead, soon after the call. The Circus wants the case to quickly be solved and put away without fuss. Smiley recognizes more is going on below the surface and his investigation eventually leads him on an unexpected path towards Karla, the Soviet spy he’s been chasing his entire career.
Sequels are rarely as rich or entertaining as the original. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was a brilliant television mini-series and set an incredibly high bar to follow. While a slight step down in overall quality, Smiley’s People still has an all-time great performance by Alec Guinness going for it. The mystery starts out a little slow but escalates in dramatic tension until its final puzzle piece is revealed.
Smiley’s People was shot on 16mm film. The 1982 BBC production has not been given the benefit of a new photochemical restoration and looks in poor condition for a 2013 release. In fact, the 1080i presentation looks little better than DVD at times. Higher Blu-ray compression standards allow for better grain management, the only area in which this disc earns its added expense over DVD.
No one watches classic television like Smiley’s People expecting demo material, even in the best Blu-rays. The picture is incredibly soft and murky, with a number of significant visual problems. Its transfer is obviously very dated, made on an older telecine before the digital age came into bloom and likely too old to have been filtered. The pervasive grain and grittiness of the 16mm cinematography can be overwhelming in some scenes, though it does appear to have been cleaned up in comparison to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The interlaced 1080i video, presented at its proper broadcast ratio of 1.33:1, does avoid the sight of aliasing and ringing artifacts.
Dark interiors lead to frequent examples of black crush and poor contrast. Shadow detail is minimal in all but the brightest scenes. Real high-frequency content is missing outside of very tight close-ups, often reducing to blurry standard-definition resolution in distant shots.
The one area in which this Blu-ray excels is the fine video encode. All six episodes have been spread over two BD-50s, allowing AVC compression to handle the gritty picture. A touch of compression noise is evident in a few scenes, but for the most part replicates the grainy transfer without serious degradation. Print quality is uneven, showing embedded dirt inside Smiley’s People.
Hopefully this BD is not the final word on Smiley’s People and it is given a new transfer in the future.
An adequate 2.0 DTS-HD MA serves as the lone audio option. Reproducing the original monaural mix, audio is fairly limited in dynamic range and somewhat thin. Dialogue is intelligible when it is meant to be heard, but Smiley’s People has a dated sonic presentation typical of older television productions. The audio is cleanly presented with no technical errors.
Acorn Media has provided English SDH as the sole choice for subtitles, displayed in a white font.
Acorn Media has rounded up a small but useful batch of special features for the 1982 production. A slipcover is included with first pressings.
Deleted Scenes (62:00 in 480i) – All six episodes get their own section of deleted content. Some are completely new scenes and others are extended versions of scenes which did make the final cut. These deleted scenes are very watchable as extra material, since many of them include information which remained unexplained in the final cut. One wonders why some of it was not included in the first place.
Interview With John Le Carré (19:36 in 480i) – A 2002 interview featuring the author, expounding at length on the character of George Smiley. Le Carré makes some fascinating points about Guinness’ relationship to the character and American acceptance of the series. Essential background information for Smiley fanatics.
Production Notes – A few text pages on the mini-series and its background.
Glossary of Main Characters and Terms – Included as a booklet, this is a vital tool for people overwhelmed by the sheer amount of obscure characters and codenames in Smiley’s People.
Le Carré Biography and Booklist – Brief text pages on the author.
Acorn Media trailer (01:54 in upscaled HD) – Preceding the main menu, a compilation featuring various properties distributed by Acorn Media.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trailer (01:03 in 1080i) – Precedes the main menu.
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