As much as we often wish our favorite shows would go on forever, sometimes it is a relief to start something knowing that it is short and has a definite end. You may not feel like you have 60 hours to finally watch Breaking Bad — something my retired dad has been promising to do for years — but six hours for a wonderful adaptation of a beloved John le Carre spy novel? Well, hello, The Little Drummer Girl!
Masterfully directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Snowpiercer), this AMC co-production with the BBC caught me totally off-guard because I am not a particular fan of spy novels and had not read this one, published in 1983 and set in 1979, and because it looks so unlike anything else on television: bright colors, sun-drenched settings, and full of clever camera moves and shot compositions and editing choices that help to tell the story with a minimum of expository dialogue — a bold move for such a densely plotted show, but it works.
The story follows Charlie (Florence Pugh), a gifted English actress with left-wing political leanings, who is lured by a handsome stranger (Alexander Skarsgard) into assisting a secret Israeli operation against the Palestinians led by Kurtz (Michael Shannon, nearly unrecognizable in push-broom moustache and ‘70s wig), a senior Mossad agent who appropriately sees the whole thing as a production in “the theater of the real.”
To say more would spoil the plot, but this is an engaging, beautifully shot piece that carefully advances its at-times confusing story to keep the viewer interested even when it’s not completely clear what’s going on. This is largely thanks to the main cast, particularly Pugh, a newcomer I’ve not seen before, in the central role. One of the great joys of movies and TV is when a totally unfamiliar performer crushes it in a key role — it makes it that much easier to buy into the world the story is creating, because you’re not distracted thinking about past roles, how well they are or are not pulling off a new accent, etcetera. As Charlie, Pugh nails the particular blend of arrogance and insecurity of a young actress, and her fascination with Joseph (Skarsgard) comes through her put-on facade of disinterest. Pugh and Skarsgard have great chemistry in the scenes where they are beginning to establish their “characters” and their history together as they begin their work together, and despite some slightly dodgy accent work by both Skarsgard and Shannon — forgivable, as the Israeli accent is the hardest of all to fake, try it if you don’t believe me — both are great. Skarsgard as the conflicted but committed soldier, not totally comfortable with his mission, Shannon as the world-weary veteran who could sell water to a fish. (A couple of grace notes I appreciated: Kurtz carefully choosing what type of glasses he should wear for his first meeting with Charlie; all the Mossad agents working on multicolored popsicles while they discuss what to do with the screaming hostage in their holding cell; Joseph’s shadow dwarfing Charlie’s as it becomes clear that she is falling for him.)
It’s late in 2018 but this was easily one of the best-looking, best designed, best costumed shows I’ve seen all year and, despite admittedly minimal interest going in, I was quickly and decisively drawn in. Just don’t try to watch the whole thing in one night — as Kurtz would say, “A night without rest is a day without perspective.”
Parts 1-6 of The Little Drummer Girl are available on demand on AMC.