If there’s essential reading in the spy genre, John le Carré’s Karla trilogy surely tops the list. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has always resonated the most with me, while The Honourable Schoolboy still stands out as the most satisfying reading experience – possibly the strongest of the three novels, in fact. But the trilogy’s concluding volume, Smiley’s People, may be the series’ most psychologically penetrating study as it relates to le Carré’s unusual hero, George Smiley. Certainly this superb six-episode BBC adaptation from 1982 bears out that notion, with Alec Guinness reprising his impeccable performance as one of fictional spydom’s most memorable figures.
Smiley is in the midst of yet another retirement when events conspire once again to lure him back to the world of espionage. One of his former agents, General Vladimir (Curd Jürgens), arranges a crash meeting with the Circus, only to wind up dead on Hampstead Heath, the victim of a Moscow assassin’s bullet. Shifty government man Oliver Lacon (Anthony Bate) pulls in Smiley to investigate the murder, hoping he’ll sweep the whole affair under the rug so that the new, gun-shy Circus can avoid a scandal. But Smiley’s quiet detective work leads him to mysterious threads he can’t help but pull on, because he senses they may lead to his nemesis, Karla, the head of Moscow Centre. Long after his Circus handlers have written it off, Smiley pursues the matter across Europe, and back into the murky depths of his own past.
On one level, the Smiley’s People viewing experience suffers in comparison to its predecessor: it’s slower, more methodical, perhaps less memorably populated. The fascinating, shifty internal politics of the Circus in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy aren’t around to generate tension, making this mystery a more solitary one for Smiley. But after multiple rewatches, I’ve come to appreciate Smiley’s People for its very differences. If Tinker Tailor shows Smiley facing down the institutional rot of his chosen world, Smiley’s People shows him staring down his own internal corruption. Outwardly he remains placid and unassuming, but undereath he’s a man on a mission, doggedly pursuing his career-long nemesis – and, subliminally, his own personal demons. This leads him ever further from his cerebral comfort zones, to the dark seedy worlds of the people whose lives he’s made a career of manipulating. It’s only as his hard work begins to bear fruit that the costs begin to show, as he contemplates the methods he’s used, the lengths he’s gone to, and the integrity he’s yielded to attain his cold, ruthless victory. It’s a penetrating glimpse into the hidden darkness of a good man’s soul, and Guinness manages the role masterfully, selling the journey as much with subtle gesture and nuanced expression as he does with le Carré’s eloquent dialogue.
Be warned, Smiley’s People will most likely play slowly and awkwardly for the uninitiated. But for fans of the genre it’s a seminal, indispensable classic.