Set in the 1970s and steeped in ambiguity and paranoia, the new adaptation of John le Carré’s spy thriller The Little Drummer Girl is fascinated by reflections — both the actual kind, captured in mirrors and windows and in the viewfinders of cameras used for surveillance, and the art mirrors that we encounter in fiction and mythology, on TV and movie screens and in the theater. The main character is a 22-year-old British actress with leftist leanings named Charmaine “Charlie” Ross (Florence Pugh), who gets drawn into an elaborate Mossad plan to lure a Palestine Liberation Organization leader into getting captured, halting a string of suitcase bombings that have killed Israelis.
Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), who fancies himself a storyteller, concocts the plan. Another Israeli spy, who’s known as Gadi (Alexander Skarsgård) but goes by other names, initially convinces Charlie that he’s the terrorist leader’s brother, whom Charlie saw when he went on a tour across the continent, speaking about Israeli persecution of Palestinians while wearing a mask to conceal his identity. Once Gadi brings Charlie into Kurtz’s orbit, she buys into the Israelis’ insistence that they just want an end to the violence, and agrees to participate in the plan, seeing it as the ultimate acting challenge. Gadi travels across Europe with Charlie, creating a backstory that will set up her infiltration of the group.
Like le Carré’s novel — and like George Roy Hill’s 1984 film adaptation, which starred Diane Keaton and Klaus Kinski — this mini-series isn’t shy about embracing the art-life blur and discussing it within the context of the story. Kurtz declares, “I am the producer, writer, and director of our little show,” and carries on like a filmmaker who loves giving interviews and has an aphorism for every occasion. Charlie likens the construction of her cover story and the subsequent infiltration to an experimental theater production, while Gadi commemorates her participation by welcoming her to “the theater of the real.” A little of this sort of thing goes a long way. And some of it feels like a preemptive attempt to push back against any viewers who complain that the series is intellectually and thematically rich, but not as suspenseful and emotionally involving as it had every right to be, given the subject matter: a woman pretending to be something she isn’t, in the presence of people who would murder her if they found out.
Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Oldboy) — who directed all six episodes of this series, an AMC pickup that premiered on BBC One last month — amplifies the script by Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson, an intellectual puzzle that jumps back and forth through time and is most comfortable being a mosaic of moments and ideas with extensive commentary attached. The mini-series often crosscuts between scenes according to shared theme rather than because they’re actually happening simultaneously in different locations. Sometimes it edits moments together in ways that create confusion or a misimpression, then resolves things later. Certain important pieces of information are strategically withheld for a long time — to create suspense and surprise, or to settle our minds into a particular groove — then a new piece of information will make us realize that we weren’t quite seeing what we thought we were seeing.
Judged purely as a piece of narrative architecture, The Little Drummer Girl is dazzling. There are always four or five things happening in every shot, and the editing never takes the story quite where you expect it to. But the fact that the PLO are treated mainly as romantic or threatening abstractions throughout the first half makes the story feel even more like a 1970s period piece than it would’ve anyway. And even at its best, it can feel theoretical and bloodless, less an international potboiler with life-and-death stakes than a series of propositions being carefully considered by the people staging them.
Pugh, a superstar in the making, is superb, making Charlie seem like a woman who has an unerring ability to identify every tree around her but keeps missing the forest. But the rest of the core cast is ill-served. Skarsgård fails to create the Man of Mystery the story requires. He’s more of a gorgeous camera subject than a compelling screen actor here, consistently mistaking reticence for intensity, and tamping down his energy to the point where he seems tired or distracted during many of his scenes. Shannon, one of the greatest living American actors, gives one of his very rare bad performances, one that feels constructed from without rather than inhabited from within. With big glasses and kinky hair provided by the grooming and props department, and a voice that sounds dubbed even though he’s doing it in the room, he’s as miscast as Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck playing a Nazi hunter and a Nazi in The Boys From Brazil, or Robert Shaw playing a Mossad agent in 1977’s Black Sunday.
This is one of those productions where you can sense everyone’s excitement at working with accomplished artists on a promising piece of material, yet somehow that excitement never translates into anything other than a low-level conceptual buzz for the viewer. Like 2016’s The Night Manager — the first of an apparently ongoing series of le Carré TV adaptations overseen by his kids — it’s a lavishly produced, intelligent, tasteful mixed bag, more interesting to think about than to watch.