The six-part adaptation struggles somewhat to convey the intricacies of the tight plot, but more than makes up for it with gripping performances.
“A tense and subtle thriller”
The Little Drummer Girl, a recent BBC/AMC mini-series based on the 1983 John le Carré spy novel, is a tense and subtle thriller. The show is set in the late 1970s, spanning London, Berlin, and Greece (to name a few of the stunning locations featured) and follows a team of Israelis who are trying to stop their people from being bombed. It is a show about espionage, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and at its centre is a questioning of what is truth and what is fiction.
“Themes of danger, secrecy, and romance pervade the show”
While the slow, subtle plot can leave viewers questioning what is happening, or even prompt them to stop watching (the show lost more than half its original viewers by episode 3), the air-tight cast brings le Carré’s novel to life against a backdrop of the Acropolis of Athens or the mountains of Lebanon. Themes of danger, secrecy, and romance pervade the show, which, despite its historical setting, rings true with contemporary issues or surveillance, war, and morality. You do not need to have a firm understanding of the wider socio-political conflict to enjoy the show.
“The clandestine actions of the characters are entirely believable”
Le Carré (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Night Manager) and his espionage expertise contained in the novel shines through into the show with crisp and realistic detail. From time-appropriate methods of forging photographs to consistently effective sleights of hand, the clandestine actions of the characters are entirely believable. It is because of this that the show is so tense and atmospheric.
“Charmaine ‘Charlie’ Ross, allows it to present a grounded human focus that other spy thrillers can sometimes forfeit for action and adventure”
The world feels very weighted, despite its destination-hopping narrative, and the close focus on the protagonist, English actress Charmaine ‘Charlie’ Ross, allows it to present a grounded human focus that other spy thrillers can sometimes forfeit for action and adventure. The high stakes of the show are entirely tied with the realities for the characters; love, lust, and hate are intertwined in a story about the costs of espionage and conflict on real people.
The show builds upon Charlie’s relative innocence, allowing the viewer to feel her fear, her confusion, and her elation. As she learns what her purpose is, we learn the ways in which she is both a victim in this game, and a complicit player. The game of cat-and-mouse as spies and insurgents spiral through Europe and the Middle East, chasing each other, uncovering clues, is a common trope of espionage fiction, and yet remains fresh and new. The viewer, like Charlie, must continuously question who’s side is the right one, or if there is a right side at all.
“The supporting cast work like clockwork, building an entirely believable network of characters all working towards a common goal”
Florence Pugh’s Charlie has excellent chemistry with Michael Shannon’s Martin Kurz, and especially with Alexander Skarsgård’s Gadi Becker. The supporting cast work like clockwork, building an entirely believable network of characters all working towards a common goal, yet complicated by each other. This is not a spy thriller all about guns, fast cars, and women dressed in barely-there silk dresses. It is a psychological experiment, complex in its analysis of the constant performance required by the spies, and the ways in which the false can seep into the real.
With each episode directed by the award-winning Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Stoker, The Handmaiden) the show is filled with lush lighting, carefully deliberate framing, and spare depiction of often brutal subject matters like war and terrorism. Park’s style is not to shock, but to slowly turn up the heat until the viewer realises they too are being burnt alive. The violence is never treated as something to gasp at, but as something to quietly consider, reframed as something of necessity for the characters, not of pleasure.
The dialogue is smart, giving nothing away and forcing the viewer to understand the tale through the expressions of the actors and the creative use of flashbacks. The narrative has a solid rhythm which carries the viewer through at a slow-burn that leaves you questioning every word, every action, and every shot. If you are willing to hold on with the slow pace of the show, you will certainly find yourself rewarded.
Featured Image courtesy of The Ink Factory and BBC via IMDb.