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Film & Television

‘The Little Drummer Girl’: a masterclass in subterfuge

By Craig Mathieson
‘Oldboy’ director Park Chan-wook takes on a le Carré spy drama, with genre-rattling results

In The Little Drummer Girl, a beguiling six-part adaptation of John le Carré’s 1983 novel, there are two very different infiltrators at work. The first is the fictional character of Charlie (Florence Pugh), an English actor not so much recruited as auditioned by Israeli intelligence agents to penetrate a Palestinian terror cell operating across Europe. The second is the drama’s very real director, the masterful Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, who shoots the covert operations with such visual panache that his technique gives the grim, late-’70s tradecraft a luscious, conducive thrill, which allows the authentic and artificial to intertwine.

“I am the producer, the writer, and the director,” says Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), a Mossad spymaster, by way of introduction to Charlie, whose London theatre troupe has been lured to Greece so that she can be vetted and tempted by Israeli agent Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård). Performance, and where it meets or sometimes suborns ideology, is central to this take on le Carré’s novel. Everyone is acting to a degree, whether to convince themselves or those around them, and Kurtz believes that Charlie’s talents mean she can excel.

The early episodes are about the assumption of identity and the strength of commitment. Martin is aware of Charlie because of her attendance at a political lecture by Salim (Amir Khoury), the younger brother of the cell’s commander – and Martin’s ultimate target – Khalil. More bolshie than Bolshevik, Charlie is opposed to Zionist expansion but hopeful of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Gadi tests the strength of her beliefs, while Martin challenges her talents in subterfuge. “What’s the character,” she asks, when the curtain is first lifted in an Athens villa. “A terrorist,” Martin replies.

Salim lines up young European women to deliver bombs for Khalil. Martin’s plan is to remove Salim from the field, but leave Charlie posing as his final find so that her path will illuminate Khalil’s operation. Gadi, the handsome Israeli operative, is coolly contained but filled with controlling ardour when performing as Salim for Charlie’s briefing; he suddenly has a movie star’s widescreen passion. The editing cuts between Gadi and Salim – two versions of the same person – are played out in front of Charlie, so that the fiction becomes real for her. Charlie has to live the role, like a method actor, so that she can perform as a sympathiser ready to become an active ally. The temptation, and then the fear, is that no one will say, “Cut.”

The Little Drummer Girl was le Carré’s first novel after concluding the Karla trilogy, which depicted George Smiley’s labyrinthine triumph over his Soviet counterpart in the grey corridors of “the Circus”. The British Secret Intelligence Service was an overwhelmingly male environment, right down to the nature of its betrayals. Charlie was a different protagonist for le Carré, and in this miniseries Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson’s scripts explore her agency and how it might be exploited. Both sides offer Charlie the choice to walk away, but counteract that with the inducement that she is making a difference. Charlie’s struggle concerns both her level of involvement and grasping its consequences. That adds to the show’s status as a thriller with a quieter, cumulative tone – right and wrong is reappraised, or discarded, in different ways by those around Charlie.

Florence Pugh’s breakthrough role, as a 19th-century British bride escaping her housebound solitude in Lady Macbeth (2016), revealed bitter, distant depths. As Charlie, however, she’s an extrovert who’s led onwards by good intentions but incapable of abandoning her morality for a cause’s necessities. There’s a push and pull to everything Charlie does, and Pugh illuminates it in a way that Diane Keaton never could in George Roy Hill’s uncomfortable 1984 Hollywood movie adaptation. Pugh’s earthy portrayal of Charlie’s pleasure, whether intellectual or physical, feels real, especially against the depiction of a Europe where young people are looking for a way to be heard. “Without an audience there’s nothing,” Gadi says of Khalil’s tactics, and that applies elsewhere here.

There’s not exactly an innocence to the undeclared conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, but these spooks and saboteurs are presented with tender, almost mournful, outlooks. They perceive their extremism as being of last resort, and none of the main players delivers ranting monologues to state their case. “I grew up in a camp myself,” Martin tells a Palestinian prisoner, placing a Nazi concentration camp alongside a refugee camp in Jordan, and the even-handed politics allow for a further duality: in another version of the narrative the Palestinians could readily train and deploy Charlie to deceive the Israelis.

These shiftable perspectives appeal to Park Chan-wook, whose 2016 film The Handmaiden was a macabre and blackly comic period paean to female sexual emancipation told from the differing viewpoints of the three main characters. The bloody pessimism of Park’s early works, such as Oldboy (2003), has lifted, and the director has found a style that is visually playful but also piercing. His pans reveal information and provide a gliding momentum that pushes the story along as Charlie progresses in her quest, while his shifts in coverage are striking. Park films the abduction of a suspect at a roadside stop as a master shot from a nearby hill, looking down on the screaming, scrambling figures and not cutting to a close-up until the exact moment that the quarry sinks her teeth into a grappling pursuer’s ear.

The sleek, traditional visual grammar of the espionage thriller, as seen in Susanne Bier’s capable direction of le Carré’s The Night Manager in 2016, is of interest to Park; it just doesn’t occur to him that it’s the only way the material can be photographed. Working with director of photography Kim Woo-hyung, Park accentuates the production design so that so that vivid colour-blocked attire announces the characters, while vintage lamps and spiral staircases are catalogued. There are establishing shots of locations, lasting a few seconds, which are gorgeous triumphs of angle and composition (the location scouts deserve medals).

The camera lingers on Martin’s forger at work and on analog recording devices, and Park leaves his own fingerprints on every frame. It’s never merely ostentatious but it’s always effective. Park uses Skarsgård, not Pugh, as the object of the camera’s desire, so that the chiselled Swede strides across a beach or – in a beautifully improbable moment – poses on a stakeout as the most handsome priest seen since Alfred Hitchcock put Montgomery Clift in a cassock for 1953’s I Confess. When a sex scene reaches its peak, Park uses a burst of surrealist animation to provide a Freudian chaser, and that’s the thing about this fascinating version of The Little Drummer Girl: the unexpected doesn’t just reside in the plot. It’s a terrific show, and the flexibility of tone, performance and theme suggests where, in the era of peak TV, the medium should go next.

 

The Little Drummer Girl is now screening on Foxtel’s BBC First.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is the film critic for the Sunday Age newspaper and the author of five books about popular music, including 2000’s The Sell-In and 2009’s Playlisted.

@CMscreens

Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgård in The Little Drummer Girl.

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