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Following their multiple award-winning triumph two years ago with The Night Manager, it comes as no surprise that the production company headed by John le Carre’s sons should want to repeat their success by adapting another of their father’s espionage thrillers into a deluxe TV miniseries. Based on le Carre’s 1983 novel of the same name, The Little Drummer Girl is a similarly prestigious package, with a high-gloss look and a starry international cast led by Michael Shannon, Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard. South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) makes his TV debut behind the camera.
As a big-screen teaser for its November broadcast debut on the BBC in the U.K. and AMC in the U.S., the first two episodes of The Little Drummer Girl world premiered Sunday at the London Film Festival. On this evidence, one third of the six-part whole, this slow-burner lacks the instantly seductive appeal of Night Manager. The globe-trotting locations are equally lavish and the cinematic visuals no less lush, but some of the key roles feel miscast, while the stretched-out plot drags in places. The dialogue is also strangely tin-eared, perhaps because Park is not a native English speaker and misses some of the off-key nuances.
The setting is late 1970s Europe, at the height of terrorist chic. Rising Brit star Pugh (Lady Macbeth, Outlaw King) plays Charlie Ross, a young actress scraping a meager living in London fringe theater. Offstage, Charlie is a left-wing idealist with a vaguely defined sympathy for the Palestinian cause, which brings her onto the loose orbit of revolutionary groups and undercover intelligence agents with murky motives.
Meanwhile, across western Europe, a Palestinian terror cell is murdering Jewish civilians. Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz (Shannon, sporting thick glasses and even thicker accent) has the group in his sights but is gambling on the long game, shadowing bomber Michel (Amir Khoury) in the hope of bringing down his wider network.
When a mysterious benefactor invites Charlie’s theater company to Greece for a charity performance, the trip turns into the most crucial audition of her career to date. A broodingly handsome stranger, Becker (Skarsgard), seems to offer Charlie the promise of holiday romance, luring her to the Acropolis for a late-night assignation. The stand-out set-piece of these two opening episodes, this striking sequence is a welcome reminder of Park’s flair as a visual stylist.
Becker’s opaque intentions only become clear when he delivers Charlie into the dubious care of Kurtz, who offers her the acting job of a lifetime: going undercover as a political sympathizer and infiltrating the Palestinian terror group. Initially outraged, then flattered and intrigued, Charlie finally agrees to take on the risky role for the greater good of potential peace in the Middle East. Her first mission: driving a Mercedes loaded with plastic explosives across Eastern Europe.
For its opening two hours at least, Little Drummer Girl delivers surprisingly few thrills and hooks. Though it is more faithful to its source novel than Night Manager, the screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson strips out much of le Carre’s moral and political anguish without adding enough of the sexy thriller elements that made Tom Hiddleston’s buttock-baring spy romp into deluxe pulp television.
Pugh, who was so steely and self-possessed in Lady Macbeth, never seems plausible as a fiery young idealist whose whole life has been a performance. Skarsgard, who normally radiates an aura of sexual danger, is all too convincing as a sullen cold-fish character. If there is meant to be an erotic frisson between the pair, we can only assume it will register in future episodes.
Using Prague as a stand-in for Germany and Austria, Park and cinematographer Kim Woo-hyung recreate Cold War-era Europe in artfully framed, alluringly saturated Pop Art colors. Production designer Maria Djurkovic, who previously worked on Tomas Alfredson’s classy le Carre adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, serves up a similar retro-chic banquet of stylishly drab 1970s interiors and fashions here.
As a technical package, The Little Drummer Girl is polished and voluptuous. But as an exercise in gripping serial narrative, it lacks the spark and swagger of recent superlative small-screen espionage capers like The Americans, Killing Eve and — yes — The Night Manager. Will Park’s TV debut come in from the cold after this lukewarm opening? Fingers crossed.
Production companies: The Ink Factory, 127 Wall Productions, BBC Studios, AMC Networks
Cast: Michael Shannon, Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard, Clare Holman, Amir Khoury, Kate Sumpter, Charles Dance, Simona Brown, Max Irons
Director: Park Chan-wook
Screenwriters: Michael Lesslie, Claire Wilson, based on the John Le Carre novel of the same name
Producer: Laura Hastings-Smith
Executive producers: Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell, Joseph Tsai, Arthur Wang, Park Chan-wook, Wonjo Jeong, Michael Lesslie, John le Carre
Cinematographer: Kim Woo-hyung
Editor: Lucia Zucchetti
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Venue: London Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Airdate: 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 19 on AMC
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