One of my TV viewing highlights in May I mentioned in my monthly recap was The Little Drummer Girl. I happened to watch quite a bit of TV that month (seven different series to be exact) and this spy thriller was definitely a standout. The fact that it’s based on John le Carré‘s novel appealed to me, but one of the main reasons to see this was definitely Florence Pugh. It was also partly in anticipation for Black Widow, in which Pugh was the absolute scene stealer.
Here’s the premise:
As a Palestinian assassin is targeting prominent Israelis, a young English actress is recruited by Mossad to infiltrate the assassin’s terrorist cell, requiring all of her acting talents but also putting her at considerable risk.
The novel has been adapted as a feature film previously with the same name in 1984, starring Diane Keaton and directed by George Roy Hill. Per Wiki, the title suggests a word play on the Christmas carol The Little Drummer Boy. I haven’t seen that version, but I often think a miniseries is a great format for complex novel as it’s able to delve deeper into the story and characters more than a 2-hour film would. Another reason to see this is for the director, Park Chan-Wook, who apparently is a big fan of Le Carré’s work. Though he’s mostly known as a feature director, it’s interesting that he hasn’t done a feature since this miniseries as he’s been busy producing the Snowpiercer series for TNT.
It’s quite rare to see a Le Carré’s novel with a female protagonist, in fact, I think this is the only one. Well, nice to see such a formidable actress to play the leading lady. Pugh plays Charlie Ross, a young British theatre actress with a bohemian spirit with a pretty radical political view, born more out of naïveté than anything else. In her spare time, she and her fellow leftist-leaning friends attend recruitment meetings by anti-Zionist terrorist cell. It’s implied that it’s the same group responsible for the bomb attack on a high-ranking Israeli official in Germany seen in its opening scene. Charlie is soon caught the attention of Mossad aka Israeli intelligence service, who’s planning a meticulous clandestine operation to infiltrate the terrorist cell group led by Palestinian bomb maker named Khalil (Charif Ghattas).
You could say that Le Carrés spy thriller is the anti-Bond movies as the spy in question doesn’t effortlessly go about their business, participating in high-octane, hyperbolic action while leading a glamorous, globe-trotting existence. Le Carré brings more realism to the espionage genre, and in this particular story, I love the the meticulous planning of a dangerous mission that’d really put the spy’s life at risk where things can easily go wrong at any moment. In a Bond movie, we know he’d never be killed (despite the movie titles having the word ‘die’ in it), but there’s a higher degree of unpredictability in Le Carré ‘s work. The fact that at times we don’t know which side Charlie is on at any given moment adds to the level of anxiety.
Episode one is basically Charlie recruitment process and it’s an intriguing set up. A mysterious stranger (Alexander Skarsgård) turns up at her London play, then she spots him at the same beach in Greece where she is vacationing with her theater group. Turns out his name is Gadi and he manages to convince the group he’s also a fellow actor. There’s quite a scorching chemistry between Pugh and Skarsgård whose tall and slender built offers a captivating contrast to the petite actress. The scene at the Acropolis is absolutely stunning, a perfect location to get someone under a spell! Before she knows what’s happening, Gadi brings her to the mission leader, Martin (Marty) Kurtz, played by bespectacled Michael Shannon sporting an Israeli accent. The no-nonsense Mossad officer introduces himself as ‘the writer, producer, and director of this little show’ and welcomes her to the ‘theater of the real.’ At the core of spycraft is making people believe who you want people to believe, so I suppose actors make for a good spy given their ability to inhabit a persona and ‘lie’ undetected.
A spy thriller is most effective when the stakes are genuinely high, especially involving someone who isn’t even a trained spy! The Mossad puts Charlie’s life at risk, and they made it seemingly impossible for her to say no. But of course, that element of danger can be appealing, even sexy, for certain personalities, and Kurtz somehow knows Charlie has a predilection for risky business. Gadi has a challenging task of not just training Charlie, but to permeate her mind that he is not Gadi but Michel (Amir Khoury), Khalil’s brother, and that she is his lover. Writers Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson crafted an intriguing narrative device using Gadi’s recorded dialogue as if he were speaking as Michel. It can get a bit confusing at times, it’s as if as a viewer you’re also given a puzzle to solve. I appreciate that the filmmaker respects the viewers’ intelligence enough not to spoon feed everything.
This isn’t the type of spy thrillers that just rely on frenetic action and fight scenes to drive the story forward. In fact, there are times the pacing is pretty slow with not much happening, but I always find it suspenseful. There’s an immersive quality in the way Chan-wook directs this series and lots to appreciate visually. Despite being set in the 70s, the director didn’t automatically go with a more desaturated look associated with a ‘retro’ film set in that era. Instead he incorporates a rich colorful palette throughout. Charlie’s dresses have such bold, vivid colors: canary yellow, cobalt blue, lime green, etc. and even the Mercedes sedan is in striking red. I read this article about the color symbolism, Chan-wook said it was exciting to be able to portray that period with bold colors given he grew up in South Korea in a time he described as “quite dark and very repressed.”
The star of the show is Pugh, whose charismatic presence is always mesmerizing to watch. She’s a naturally confident actor but her vulnerability is just as alluring as her self-assured performance. There’s a scene where her facade is exposed earlier in the show that’s pretty emotionally-charged, and she only gets better from there. Charlie is a layered, complex character and she definitely sells the role wonderfully. She’s surrounded by a terrific cast who brought their A-game to this. I’m equally impressed with Shannon who’s the mastermind of the whole mission and despite his ruthless approach, you can’t help but sympathize with him. As for Skarsgård, I don’t usually find him as irresistible like many women, but I quite like his brooding performance here and I think that’s a testament to how his character is written. I was quite captivated by Ghattas as Khalil who’s definitely not your typical one-dimensional baddie. Simona Brown (who’s excellent in Behind Her Eyes), Michael Moshonov, Clare Holman all have some memorable moments that make up Kurtz’s spy team.
As far as spy series go, The Little Drummer Girl ranks as one of the best I’ve ever seen and Pugh is definitely one of my absolute favorite actors working today. I actually think this is a much better adaptation than The Night Manager (2016), another one from Le Carré’s oeuvre I saw last year. It’s an atmospheric concoction that mixes mystery, suspense and drama remarkably well. Given the continuing escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it also makes this series all the more timely. I can’t recommend this enough and it made me crave even more spy mini series!
Have you seen The Little Drummer Girl mini series? I’d love to hear what you think!