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The Little Drummer Girl – Review

December 23, 2018
Episode one of The Little Drummer Girl concludes with the aspiring actress Charlie’s romantic evening in Athens with Michel going awry. While driving together, he begins  acting odd, making cryptic comments and speeding down unfamiliar roads. Thinking she is being Shanghaied into some awful fate, Charlie is confused and intrigued when Michel stops the car at an imposing house. She is greeted by a group of Israeli men and women: the leader Kurtz introduces himself as the ‘producer, writer and director of our little show and I would like to talk with you about your part.’
The Little Drummer Girl

Alexander Skarsgård as Becker, Florence Pugh as Charlie Ross – The Little Drumer Girl _ Season 1, Episode 3 – Photo Credit: © 2018 The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Limited. All rights reserved.

Kurtz has done his research, and Charlie (a left-wing radical) has been carefully selected for a mission to infiltrate a pro-Palestinian terrorist group who have bombed the Israeli embassy in West Germany. Her acting talents are a perfect fit for the murky world of espionage as through her undercover work she is required to overtly embrace and covertly reject her instinctual support for Palestinian liberation. The genius of The Little Drummer Girl, adapted from John le Carré’s superlative novel, is that the audience is constantly guessing when the performance ends and real life begins. Are we watching Charlie the actress or Charlie the real person as she slipstreams between the role of Mossad agent and terrorist? Is she in danger of going native in the austere Lebanese terrorist camp, or is she is bit too attracted to the European- based terror cell where her new-found comrades love to drink, laugh and make love just as much as the acting troupes she grew up in? No matter where Charlie finds herself, she is fully the thespian. When she chooses a role, she plays it to the hilt. This is why Kurtz insists, at a moment of great danger to the innocents involved when there is literally a ticking bomb in the room, that Charlie pause and ‘play the scene’. There were shades of an American-style method acting in the physicality of Charlie’s performance, and in the tortuous psychological effects of her coming out of character. I thought this was alluded to best in the closing scenes between Charlie and Michel: ‘Who are you? Who am I?’ Charlie asks.
In a narrative that is largely about acting it should come as no surprise that the entire cast was extraordinarily good, but special mention has to go to Florence Pugh as Charlie. The twenty-two year old actress pulled off a wonderfully layered performance in one of the most daunting roles imaginable. I won’t curse Pugh with that kiss of death cliche ‘the next big thing’, but I sincerely hope we’ll be seeing more of her. But what of the future of le Carré onscreen?
By the late 1970s three of le Carré’s novels had been adapted for the silver screen, but the BBC was about to introduce a new long-form narrative in its superlative adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which unravelled over seven episodes and was better suited at accommodating the author’s convoluted plotting of double and triple-crosses. For proof of this, look at how inferior the big-screen remake of Tinker Tailor was by comparison. After the disappointing adaptation of A Perfect Spy in 1987 it would be the best part of thirty years before le Carre’s work would be adapted again into a mini-series. That series was The Night Manager, and while it was a massive hit and seductively entertaining, there was nothing in it that matched The Little Drummer Girl in terms of its compelling portrait of people caught up in a web of deception. As a period piece, set in the late 1970s, it was impressive just how fresh and urgent the story of radicalisation and individuals falling victim to governments and ideologies felt today. The novel is well-suited to television, not least because a previous film adaptation was a crushing disappointment but also, as I have examined elsewhere, the story behind the novel is even more fascinating as it involves le Carre’s meetings with Mossad agents and PLO leader Yasser Arafat while researching the book.
The Little Drummer Girl may not have been a ratings smash but, over time, I believe it will come to be regarded as one of the greatest adaptations of le Carré’s work. And that’s quite an achievement as there have been no fewer than 16 small and silver screen le Carré adaptations over the past five decades. I’ve no doubt there will be more. Our Game would be terrific onscreen, as would The Honourable Schoolboy. Maybe someone will even pluck up the courage to adapt the critically reviled The Naive and Sentimental Lover. I feel though that what this production achieved in terms of storytelling, performance and production may be hard to top. But as it seems likely there will always be fascination with le Carré’s work then film and television makers will keep trying. And even at the age of 87 le Carré is still writing, with a new novel out next year for readers to look forward to.
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