Brow Beat

Gary Oldman’s Good, but Alec Guinness Was Great

A still of Alec Guinness in ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ (1979).

I feel sorry for Gary Oldman. He has done something rarely attempted by stars of year-end Oscar-bait movies: He has turned in an understated performance! He plays superannuated spymaster George Smiley in the new movie version of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And it seems all anyone can talk about is the 1979 BBC TV version, starring Sir Alec Guinness in the same role.

In The New Yorker, Anthony Lane gushed over Guinness’ “opaque yet disarming sagacity.” The Atlantic’s James Parker dubbed his “the definitive performance.” (My favorite of Parker’s many astute observations: Guinness’ Smiley “moved as if he were wearing three overcoats.”) They’re both right, of course. Oldman understands that Smiley’s strongest urge is to blend in with the hideous ’70s wallpaper, and he seems appropriately worn down by the life he’s led. Nevertheless, Oldman can’t quite embody the retiring world-weariness and disappointment that Guinness so effortlessly conveys.

The problem is one of reality vs. verisimilitude. Guinness was 65 years old when he first put on Smiley’s spectacles; Oldman is a mere stripling of 53. The same can be said of the period setting: Director Tomas Alfredson did an amazing job of summoning up the dismal gloom of Britain in the 1970s—all smoke and fug and nary a glimpse of color. It’s an artful reconstruction. But Guinness and the murderers’ row of great British actors assembled by the BBC were twitching net curtains and visiting bland safe houses in the real 1970s. How can Alfredson possibly compete with that?

Greater length doesn’t always mean added depths, but le Carré’s complicated story makes more sense when it spills out over the course of the TV series’ six hours rather than the movie’s 127 minutes (as my colleague Dana Stevens can also attest). Both versions turn a thinky book into a talky teleplay—even in the big-budget movie, some parts of the story are conveyed in conversation rather than shown.

The TV series is full of brooding menace, but there aren’t a lot of thrills—it’s more cerebral than that. The mole at the top level of the British intelligence service is trapped using logic, not firepower. (Smiley is a very scholarly detective who spends hours examining documents.) The movie’s most heart-racing scene involves an attempt to smuggle a folder full of documents out of a library-like place. It’s the old-school version of that contemporary cliché: a hero copying computer files onto a thumb drive as bad guys approach.

Watching the TV version after seeing the film is a fascinating exercise, but it’s also a little repetitive. If you can’t face the same mole hunt all over again, check out Smiley’s People, a BBC production from 1982 in which Smiley once again returns from retirement to save “the Circus,” as le Carré called British intelligence. It was filmed three years after Tinker, Tailor, but the rudimentary computers that have started to pop up around the office make the setting seem positively prehistoric. In this adventure, Smiley heads off to Europe in pursuit of his nemesis—proving that the man can maintain his composure even among foreigners and hippies. The highlight of the series is an amazing face-off between Smiley and the Circus’ new boss, Saul Enderby, in Episode 5. Barry Foster plays Enderby as a slimy showoff who treats Smiley like a doddering fool. It’s worth sitting through the whole six hours just to see how effectively Guinness can express annoyance and dismay in a momentary glance. You may not even notice—and that’s kind of the point.