Charmian “Charlie” Ross (Florence Pugh), the title character of The Little Drummer Girl, is an actress who is recruited to be a spy and possibly a terrorist. But what AMC’s adaptation of the 1983 John Le Carré novel presupposes is… maybe all three of those are the same thing?
Little Drummer Girl (it debuts Monday; I’ve seen all six episodes) is fascinated by the blurred lines between Charlie’s chosen profession and the one she’s press-ganged into by pugnacious Israeli spy Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) and his stoic point man Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), who’ve concocted a plan to infiltrate the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1979. “I am the producer, writer and director of our little show,” Kurtz tells Charlie. He behaves accordingly, staging an elaborate fiction where Charlie — bohemian, reckless and vaguely interested in pro-Palestinian causes because it’s the fashionable thing to care about — poses as the girlfriend of Michel, a terrorist’s younger brother who’s been captured by Israeli forces. Kurtz (who wears glasses on a loop that he’s forever taking off and putting back on, just like Shea Whigham’s character in Homecoming) fusses over the script for this charade, the special effects (faked photos, a murder made to look like an accident) and the motivations of his actors. (Becker, who role-plays as Michel for the purposes of training Charlie, is a most reluctant leading man.) His ardent hope is that the vision in his head becomes what the world gets to see.
It’s all very confusing, in the manner of most Le Carré adaptations, including The Night Manager. That 2016 miniseries helped establish AMC’s “Le Carré + beautiful international scenery + beautiful international actors” formula that Little Drummer Girl follows so faithfully, for better and worse. It ultimately goes a bit deeper than Night Manager’s superficial pleasures, thanks mainly to a star-making performance from Pugh (Lady Macbeth) and smart, gorgeous direction on all six installments(*) from Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden). But the story as a whole feels simultaneously too convoluted and too thin — the kind of production Charlie would have to carry through on raw talent, because the script’s not quite there.
(*) Only a few years ago, it was startling to have one person direct an entire season of dramatic television, like Cary Joji Fukunaga with True Detective Season One. But this month alone has seen the debuts of single-director seasons from Sam Esmail (Homecoming), Ben Stiller (Escape at Dannemora), Saverio Costanzo (My Brilliant Friend) and now Chan-wook, plus the continuation of Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs.
The tale starts with a literal bang, as a PLO terror cell puts a bomb in an Israeli diplomat’s German home, before easing back into the Israelis’ patient and painstaking plan to conscript and prep Charlie while they elicit secrets from the real Michel. The pacing is more measured in these early chapters, but the scenery and the interplay between Pugh and Skarsgård keep things from feeling sluggish. In the visual highlight of the first hour, Becker, posing as a tourist, uses the Acropolis as the backdrop for his initial seduction of Charlie, and the two look impossibly small and young in front of this towering relic.
Charlie, in fact, appears pocket-sized next to most of the men, which only underlines how vulnerable and out of her depth she is among all these killers. But what Pugh lacks in height, she more than makes up for in charisma and screen presence. Long stretches of the story involve her silently going from place to place, or listening to Becker-as-Michel in an extended transcontinental rehearsal process. Pugh is always extremely watchable in those sequences, and she masters the many layers required by the role(s), including the fact that Charlie isn’t as smart or fearless as she keeps telling the world. Skarsgård is effectively restrained, even sad-puppy-doggish at times, as Becker, while the manipulative but volatile Kurtz is a gourmet meal of scenery for Shannon, who gets to play at both the loudest and quietest ends of his range and have it feel like a unified performance. (Neither Shannon nor Skarsgård seem particularly Israeli/Jewish, but Shannon is at least given enough accessories and monologues — plus a scene where he screams in both English and Hebrew in front of the monument for the murdered 1972 Israeli Olympic team — to compensate a bit.)
The longer the story lasts, though, the more that Chan-wook is revealed as the production’s true star. He and cinematographer Kim Woo-hyung at times lean on the visual template of The Night Manager, with lots of lush compositions designed to show off how pretty the actors and scenery are. But everything always looks and feels unsettling, as if these locales are somehow as aware as we are that they’re just players in Kurtz’s production, and if you nudge this monument or that mountain hard enough, it might reveal itself to be a papier-mâché set. When Becker is coaching Charlie, reality tends to reshape itself at random, so that one moment she’ll be talking to Becker, the next to Michel, the background shifting as easily as the man in her life. Even stock thriller moments like a car wreck or an assassination have a different and more raw presentation than you’d expect. This is the rare suspense tale where the preparation for the mission winds up being more interesting than the mission itself — among other flaws, the script never properly establishes the mystery of where Charlie’s loyalties will lie once she’s away from Becker and Kurtz’s direct supervision — but Chan-wook keeps finding unconventional and surprising ways to film the clichés he’s been given, in addition to getting great work from his cast. (Game of Thrones’ Charles Dance — Tywin Lannister — has a delightful turn in the later episodes as a British intelligence official who feels no need to disguise his utter contempt for Kurtz.)
Kurtz’s little production is meant to withstand international scrutiny, but it becomes more of a problem for Charlie and everyone else the closer people look at it. Similarly, The Little Drummer Girl is best admired from a polite distance without trying to think too hard about whether it makes sense or is worth all the time and effort. But goodness, the show is lovely to look at.