Love It Or Leave It?
The Little Drummer Girl
November 19, 2018
In the Spring of 2016, AMC aired a miniseries adaptation of John le Carre’s 1993 novel, The Night Manager. The excellent series, which starred Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman, brought AMC together with the independent film studio, The Ink Factory (which is run by le Carre’s sons, Stephen and Simon Cornwell) and the vaulted institution of the BBC. Together, le Carre’s work popped from the page onto the small screen in a 6 hour movie, replete with careful plotting, beautifully shot locations, and top notch acting performances. Fast forward two and a half years and the BBC, The Ink Factory, and AMC have now reunited for an all new John le Carre adaptation, this time doing his 1983 novel, The Little Drummer Girl.
Split into a six-part miniseries, The Little Drummer Girl stars Alexander Skarsgård (Big Little Lies; True Blood), Michael Shannon (Waco; The Shape of Water), and Florence Pugh (Outlaw King; Lady Macbeth), and is directed by acclaimed Korean filmmaker, Park Chan-wook (Old Boy; The Handmaiden; Stoker), making his television directorial debut. AMC will air the six parts over three consecutive nights, November 19-21.
Using the same successful formula honed in The Night Manager, The Little Drummer Girl takes a late 1970s-set spy thriller and makes it feel fresh and relevant for today’s world. As much a story about love and betrayal as it is about high stakes espionage and international intrigue, The Little Drummer Girl weaves an intricate plot about stopping an Palestinian terrorist, divided loyalties and a man and woman who may or may not be in love. What is real, what is a lie and does the truth about either even matter in the grand scheme of things?
Florence Pugh plays Charlie Ross, a London actress with very left leaning sympathies (particularly towards Palestinians in the ever ongoing conflict between Jews and Palestinians) who, together with her theatre troupe, is sent on holiday to Naxos, Greece by an anonymous donor. While there, she encounters a man (Alexander Skarsgård) who she comes to know as Peter though she calls him Joseph and Jose (Charlie likes nicknames). Though she’s stubbornly resistant to his handsome yet mysterious ways (the rest of her troupe all immediately try to clamor for his attention), she’s eventually won over by his quiet charm.
Smitten with this stranger, who she still can’t get any real information out of, Charlie agrees to accompany him to Athens for a day of sightseeing. That night, after a tender moment in front of the Acropolis, everything changes for Charlie.
“The good news is I have lied to you as little as possible.”
Enter Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), an Israeli spymaster. Also, the writer, director and producer of a real world play that (an angry and confused) Charlie has been auditioning for. In short, they need Charlie to play a part in stopping an international terrorist. She realizes they (they don’t reveal to her that they are Israeli but, c’mon) have been spying on her for a long time and know literally everything about her and her life. After lots of back and forth about her beliefs and her personal history, what’s real and what’s not, Kurtz tells her she’s “won” the role. Because of certain crimes she’s committed, she kind of has to accept but not really – these kinds of things work better if you come willingly.
The ruse: Gadi Becker (that’s
Peter Jose Joseph‘s real name) will assume the part of a Michel (real name, Salim), younger brother of the wanted terrorist, Khalil. Salim has a penchant for non-Palestinian women that he can romance and then recruit into the family terrorist network. Charlie will play Salim’s latest love. The goal is for Charlie to eventually be recruited into the terrorist network which will hopefully lead Kurtz and the rest of the Israeli spies to Khalil.
Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray and so, the plan doesn’t work out so nicely but … no spoilers. The point is that Shannon, Skarsgård and Pugh all take turns stealing the spotlight and make the most of their time front and center. Great chemistry is key in these kinds of productions where you, the viewer, need to buy into the supposed relationship between the characters on screen. The push and pull dynamic between Charlie and Gadi is sexy yet aloof, intimate yet cold. Strained by their own internal struggles and contradictions, to say nothing of the pressure placed on them by outward forces, makes them impossible to not watch. You need to see what happens next to these two but really, you can’t predict their actions.
Shannon’s Kurtz, the man with several plates spinning in the air at any given time, is the puppetmaster’s puppetmaster. You believe from Kurtz’s very first scene, this is a man that has the entire plan laid out in his head and knows where every chess piece is and how it will move. Also, he trusts no one and absolutely no one else knows a tenth of what he’s planning.
Last, I need to mention the use of location. By using the idyllic setting of Greece (they filmed there) contrasted against the washed out, late 70s vibe of England and Prague (standing in for West Germany), location is a character of its own in The Little Drummer Girl. Watching the action play out across these places helps you seamlessly slip into this anachronistic world which is 40 years gone by.
Love It Or Leave It? Love it! The Little Drummer Girl is a tour de force of acting and plot. At six hours long, it’s not a terrible amount of commitment time in exchange for which, you receive next level plot, action and acting. I love spy thrillers and so they always start with a leg up on the competition but, like The Night Manager before it, The Little Drummer Girl is engrossing and hypnotic and leaves you feeling as conflicted and uneasy as its characters. I like my television to make me feel and make me think. If you’re the same way, you need to spend some time with The Little Drummer Girl.