Review: The Little Drummer Girl

Florence Pugh in The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl came to television as a limited series on AMC. It’s a spy story based on a John le Carré novel. John le Carré adapted it for television. If you’re familiar with John le Carré you know his stories are complex tales that trap your imagination in a world of spies and intrigue.

Let me boil this complicated 6 part series down to the most basic description I can. The time is the 1970s. The Israelis and Palestinians are at war then, as they are today. Both sides consider the other side terrorists, as they do today. The story enters the conflict from the Israeli point of view. The Israelis want to find and kill a man named Khalil (Charif Ghattas). He’s deeply hidden, so they go after his younger brother Michel (Amir Khoury).

To use Michel, they devise a crazy, complicated ruse involving an untrained spy in the form of a young English actress named Charlie (Florence Pugh). Charlie is supposed to have a love affair with Michel. Except she doesn’t. Instead, she learns to play a role as if she had the affair by walking through a rehearsal of it with Becker (Alexander Skarsgård).

Alexander Skarsgård and Micheal Shannon in The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie falls for Joseph Becker (or Gadi, as he’s also called) early in the series when they meet on a beach in Greece. He introduces her to spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon), who offers her a role in his real-life performance piece.

The Israelis picked Charlie carefully. She’s a good actress. She remembers everything she reads and hears. She has outspoken political opinions. They’ve been watching her for a while. She agrees to do it.

Later, when the Palestinians hold a gun to her head, and when she realizes the Israelis and the Palestinians are equally murderous, Charlie tries to quit. There is no moral high ground between these two warring sides. At this point Gadi, who has held her at arms length as he trained her to know all about Michel, finally makes love to her as himself. She stays.

Here are some of the cast and producers discussing the pivotal point in the story when the training is over and it’s time to perform.

The Palestinians grab her and the performance of her lifetime is on! Charlie is taken to a Palestinian training camp in Lebanon for a month. Alone. Her handlers are far away.

She does well and is given an assignment back in England. She finally meets the elusive Khalil.

I won’t reveal the ending, but will say that things get dangerous for Charlie. The job requires things she doesn’t like doing. But she does them.

Florence Pugh in The Little Drummer Girl

When I began watching the first episode of this series, I was convinced that this fresh-faced young actress named Florence Pugh was wrong for the part. I’d never seen her in anything. She does not have a look about her that says “spy thriller.” It didn’t take long for Florence Pugh to convince me that I was wrong. She’s talented. Subtle and convincing at every juncture. She turned out to be quite capable of carrying the drama forward.

If you’ve read John le Carré novels or seen any of his other work adapted for the screen, you’ll be prepared for how long and complicated and often confusing his spy stories can be. This one is no exception. Sometimes it drags so slowly you might nod off a bit. There’s too much discussion of spycraft. There’s too much arguing over what they’re doing.

Other times it grabs you by the collar and pulls you along at breakneck speed. With 6 episodes, and le Carré himself writing the adaptation, this series is very close to the experience of reading his novels.

There’s an interesting article at The Ringer about le Carré. It gives his history, background on where the ideas for The Little Drummer Girl came from, and much more. You might recognize le Carré’s face – he did a cameo as a waiter in The Little Drummer Girl.

The Little Drummer Girl was directed by Chan-wook Park.

If you missed it live on the premier nights, full episodes are available on AMC.com. For those of you who would have watched it on BBC One,  episodes are available there on the iPlayer.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Little Drummer Girl”

  1. i could not get past the fact that Kurtz (Michael Shannon) looks like David Letterman in his younger days… My problem i guess…

  2. i have strong feelings about the Israeli Palestinian conflict so i was torn as i watched this one. it started a bit slowly and but for your review, i might not have finished it. i am glad i did. the acting was superb. the story was engrossing (once the foundation was laid in episodes one and two). upon finishing, i went back to watch “The Night Manager” again – it is more evenly paced and there was suspense in every episode. maybe i just prefer to having a clear difference btwn the good and bad guys but i enjoyed it more than “The Little Drummer Girl.”

    1. The thing about the story that bothered me, too, was the clear preference for the Israeli point of view. With her life on the line, Charlie saw both sides, but it wasn’t the focus of the story.

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