Published in the intervening years between Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Night Manager’s releases, author John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl represents something of a trade-off between the better qualities of those two books. There is, as in Tinker Tailor, a distinctly cerebral aspect to Drummer Girl’s intricate period politics, but it’s still a broadly accessible piece of work because it’s tempered by The Night Manager’s pulpier style of storytelling. It makes sense, then, that any potential director of Drummer Girl’s TV adaptation should similarly embody that sense of commercial-critical darlinghood – but it’s still something of a surprise that it is audacious Korean auteur Park Chan-wook who takes the helm for the AMC-BBC co-production.
Two hours-deep into Drummer Girl, that match begins to seem so natural it’s inspired. Le Carré’s globe-trotting, ‘70s-set spy thriller actually incorporates many of Park’s auteurist hallmarks: the story’s political backdrop (Israel-Palestine) is as befitting a setting a revenge-obsessed director is likely to get, and the highly stylised period demands the kind of sumptuous aesthetics Park has been serving up since his Vengeance trilogy. There is, too, the fact that Drummer Girl’s plot takes a meta turn very early on in its six-episode run, allowing Park ample opportunity to treat this intellectually meaty material with all the rigour of a philosophy student (which he once was).
At the crux of that complex plot is lead character Charmian Ross (Florence Pugh, dazzlingly charismatic), a small-time theatre player and part-time radical with a knack for embellishing reality so that it mirrors the heightened drama of the works she spends her evenings reciting. This isn’t quite Killing Eve in terms of female character complexity, but despite her plain-spokenness on matters ranging from feminism to Palestine, Charlie (as she’s known) is always somewhat impenetrable, remaining something of a mystery even amongst her friends. We don’t get much more of an inkling as to her truth until episode two, by which point she has been whisked off to Athens by way of several dramatic turns. First, a wealthy anonymous benefactor flies her acting troupe out to a Greek island, where they keep bumping into the same, equally enigmatic man (Alexander Skarsgård). It’s with him – Skarsgård’s character is known interchangeably as José and Joseph at this point, but he slips between a total of five names in the first two episodes – that Charlie travels by boat to Athens, abandoning her friends and jealous-minded boyfriend (Max Irons) in the process.
There, Drummer Girl takes its Truman Show-esque turn, a tonal shift that colours everything that follows. In Athens, José and Charlie arrive at a secluded villa where a group is patiently awaiting their presence – all strangers with the exception of Rose, a South African “tourist” Charlie met on the island. Like her, it turns out there is more to José than meets the eye: this eclectic group are all Mossad operatives working on an unorthodox project under the leadership of maverick agent Marty Kurtz (Michael Shannon, here playing a looser version of his institution-personified roles in Waco, Nocturnal Animals and The Shape of Water). A recent spate of bombings targeting Jewish diplomats and their families has led Kurtz to suspect a group of Palestinian brothers, but conventional tactics have so far failed to lead to their capture; now, Kurtz’s own radical approach is being given the green light, and he wants Charlie to join him by taking on the star turn in his “theatre of the real”.
If the subject matter here seems divisive, it’s worth saying that Drummer Girl’s first two hours signal a willingness in Park and screenwriter Michael Lesslie to reckon with the moral ambiguity of their characters and their respective politics. The freedom-fighter-or-terrorist debate plays out in depth in Charlie and Kurtz’s conversations, while the fluidity of a person’s identity is intelligently evoked in José/Joseph/Becker’s many aliases and the show’s editing style, which sees one character’s actions transition into those of their ideological rivals as one scene moves into another. Similar technical touches include Kim Woo-hyung’s swivelling camerawork and some boldly cinematic diegetic lighting: from the focused beam of industrial floor lamps in scenes of strategic calculation to the romantic glow of the Parthenon’s under-lighting during Charlie and José’s first kiss, there is a sense of purpose behind Drummer Girl’s aesthetics. Everything just looks good, too: Maria Djurkovic’s production design channels the ‘70s through the varying style prisms of West Germany, Greece, and London, while an undercurrent of Warhol eroticism runs through Steven Noble and Sheena Napier’s bold costumes (look out for Pugh’s Little Blue Riding Hood look).
Although his audacious style is toned down for easily-spooked TV execs, Park finds a way for his signature touch to persist under Drummer Girl’s glossy finish: from the shaky interior of a speeding car to the slow, sensuous movements of a man applying sunscreen to a woman’s back, there is a sense of tactile realism throughout.
These first two episodes prophesize a highly stylized show in which everything – patchy accents included – feels thematically linked. Initiating us into that world is no easy task, and perhaps that’s why, after two hours of Drummer Girl, audiences might feel inclined to pause and take things in before diving back into le Carré’s labyrinthine plot. Yet the screenplay’s philosophical approach, Park’s hypnotic direction and the similar magnetism of Pugh and Shannon will ultimately drive you on, propelling you deeper into The Little Drummer Girl’s beguiling world.
The Little Drummer Girl will have its US premiere on AMC on November 19, and in the UK on BBC One on October 28.