A little sampling of GuinnessIt has been recently revealed to me that Sir Alec Guinness was an exceptional actor. Late as this revelation may have come, it has come in time enough for me to make viewing decisions based just on his name. Prior to last week, the last time I saw Guinness in a movie was in his Oscar winning role in Bridge on the River Kwai several years ago, where he pretty much played the ultimate British-stiff-upper-lip. Obi-Wan Kenobi was many years before that, and so you can understand why I spent several years without a light sabre to dispel the darkness. The immediate gospel was delivered home via two Guinness performances: one in his famed series of "Ealing Comedies" and one in a TV production of a John Le Carré book.
The Lavender Hill Mob sees Guinness play Mr. Holland, later dubbed "Dutch" in his avatar as City employee turned bank robbery mastermind. A seemingly docile employee with a fastidous mind in charge of the regular transport of gold bars, Holland plots an ingenious attempt to pinch the bullion. Joined in by a new friend and collecting two old pros by way of one of the most ingenious recruiting schemes seen in fiction, they go in for the old smash-and-grab. The movie is all about the hilarious consequences of their actions, which I will let you discover in your own time among Eiffel Towers and Police Exhibitions. Do watch out for the typically British ironical twist at the end, which in a sense is mirrored even to this date in some of the popular Guy Ritchie films.
Smiley's People, on the other hand, sees Guinness operating in conditions of serious drama. The Le Carré world of espionage is at the opposite end of the narrative spectrum from that of Ian Fleming, with such unglamourous men such as George Smiley who live, operate and suffer. In this series of six episodes totalling upto five hours, Guinness has about 80% of screen time, and so is squarely responsible for keeping our interest alive in the fairly complex plot. Thankfully, the usual thumb rule of the average British television episode being populated by competent actors more than holds, with a supporting cast consisting of names such as Michael Gambon and a small cameo by Patrick Stewart; yet Guinness towers over them.
George Smiley is a complex character, a retired spy who is forced out of retirement again to confront past ghosts while having to get his "hands dirty" unwillingly, but with a sense of duty. Le Carré's interview in the additional features on the DVD tells us how Guinness prepared for this - talking to people from the intelligence services, gobbling up little nuances for his role, and gradually slipping into this different persona. What's striking about Guinness as Smiley is the sustained and considered acting of a quality that I seldom been privileged to watch. There are several places where the screenplay calls for just "being", sans dialogue or action, and Sir Alec manages to precisely convey to us the conflicts that seem to be grappling inside him, especially when the tough decisions need to be made. If I was studying to be an actor, this would be a much viewed manual. The contrast between the younger version of the actor with a perennial smirk in the previous film and this old, weary espiocrat was very distinctive.
I must go now - yesterday, I picked up Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Sir Alec Guinness in eight roles, and it awaits.
To those who were expecting a narration revolving around the dark beer and were disappointed, it's not my fault - I'll have you know that I'm probably one of few people on earth to go all the way to Ireland, very close to the source of Guinness, and not even have a sip, much to consternation in some chapters. (Informative tip: they will give you a free drink if you take the tour)