The Little Drummer Girl: Full Miniseries   Books Included 
January 28, 2019 8:39 AM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

Based on John le Carré’s best-selling literary masterpiece of the same name and directed by visionary filmmaker Park Chan-wook, The Little Drummer Girl weaves a suspenseful and explosive story of espionage and high-stakes international intrigue. Set in the late 1970s, the pulsating thriller follows Charlie, a fiery actress and idealist whose resolve is tested after she meets the mysterious Becker while on holiday in Greece. It quickly becomes apparent that his intentions are not what they seem, and her encounter with him entangles her in a complex plot devised by the spy mastermind Kurtz. Charlie takes on the role of a lifetime as a double agent while remaining uncertain of her own loyalties. AMC

GQ: The Little Drummer Girl Is a Dazzling Spy Series That Will Mess You Up
Spies have made for really great TV lately. The Americans, as you might know, was one of the best shows of the decade, with a married-spies conceit that made it both a gripping thriller and an emotionally devastating drama. It also, unfortunately, ended last spring—but luckily for us, there's already another great spy series debuting this week. The Little Drummer Girl is like 2016's The Night Manager, a six-episode AMC limited series based on a John Le Carré novel of the same name, assembling a small but strong cast. It's also a series that features the TV debut of Park Chan-wook, the acclaimed director of Oldboy and a master of the psychological thriller. You're going to want to see it.

Variety: TV Review: AMC’s ‘The Little Drummer Girl’
The first two episodes of Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson’s tart teleplay patiently spin out revelations of false identity and true political motivation, so that we might fall as hard Charlie does for Becker’s inscrutable, self-professedly “dodgy” charms, before doubling back with some withheld secrets of her own. “The good news is I’ve lied to you as little as possible,” one character says to another at the close of chapter one, and it could really be spoken by any of them. Le Carré’s stories progress best at a slow burn, and the pace thus far feels just right, set by creeping human desire and curiosity, not by rattled-off plot points.

The Guardian: The Little Drummer Girl review – Spies, sex and Sunday night thrills
It’s all brilliantly, beautifully done and the dialogue sounds as good as everything else looks. By the end of the hour you’re more firmly recruited than Charlie is. Do I know what is real and what is not? Do I know where to position myself at the border between fact and fiction? I do not. Let Le Carré and his team determine my truth. I’m along for the six-week ride.

Rolling Stone: ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ Review: Ignore the Plot, Admire the Beauty of Le Carré Thriller

The New Yorker: “The Little Drummer Girl,” Reviewed: A Fever Dream of Glamorous Espionage

Vulture: The Little Drummer Girl Is Dazzling, But Bloodless

Full recaps of every episode at the AV Club.
posted by myotahapea (14 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed this. Tried to make it through a full re-watch before posting, but life got in the way, so a few immediate observations:

I was really impressed with the lead actress. Charlie as a character is written to be a bit atypical, IMO, but the way Pugh embodies her is quite captivating. It was refreshing to see her being charming but also a bit abrasive and confrontational, and willing to speak an unpopular opinion without embarrassment or apology. I also appreciated that, while Florence Pugh is undeniably gorgeous, she’s not the standard blandly pretty, tall-and-willowy type of attractive which is so often cast in this sort of role.

The settings and cinematography were as impressive as expected. I fully understood Charlie’s comment of ‘How am I ever going to fall in love after this?’ during her ‘date’ with Joseph at the Acropolis, as I don’t think I can ever visit the Acropolis after watching that scene; the reality would be a letdown. And the way the abduction of Michel’s Swedish girlfriend was shot from a distance, both giving a sense of inevitability to her being carried to the boot and driven off, and also evoking a more period filming style.
I also appreciated the almost exuberant use of colour, in both the settings and the clothing. After so many (understandably) drab evocations of ‘70s and ‘80s spy fare, seeing the intense primary colours and jewel-tones of Charlie’s dresses, the magenta walls and hand-painted stripes in her flat, and the general embracing of the more garish extremes of the ‘70s palette was a nice departure.

The deliberate changes from the source material (those I noticed immediately, anyway) I found worked well for the narrative, particularly where they involved depicting events from 40 years in the past for a modern audience.
Charlie’s awareness that she likely wouldn’t keep her cool at the border crossing and leaning into that with the misdirection of the car boot full of moonshine was a nice twist that felt true to a performer/improviser turning a weakness into a strength. (IIRC, in the book she just plays it flirty with the border guards, and while that may be period-accurate it’s also a rather tired trope, and making her success a result of her ingenuity worked well for the character and the current time period.)
Omitting the physically abusive and generally loutish aspects of Charlie's off-and-on actor boyfriend seemed appropriate as well. Such details worked somewhat in the book — in part because we are privy to more of her inner thoughts — but would have felt distracting in a shortened adaptation. Not to mention that while I’d imagine this sort of thing was more common and accepted in 1979, it would have felt problematic and jarring for viewers to see a character (particularly one who feels very independent and no-nonsense) put up with that in 2018.

That popsicle scene. Ludicrously believable? Horribly ludicrous? Commentary on the banality of evil? Black humour at its best? I was simultaneously laughing at the absurdity and cringing at the inhumanity.

I appreciated that Charlie’s Jordanian/Palestinian experience was expanded upon from the books, and I’ll admit there was a part of me that was hoping for her to embrace the cause after being embedded in the training camp and then the community. On first viewing I got the sense that any ambiguity she herself was feeling (as opposed to the attempts by Kurtz and his team to determine whether she’d flipped) was ultimately rendered moot by her feelings for Gadi, which I found a bit disappointing.

I’m not sure if it was due to the compression of the source material or because I found the Mossad intelligence side of the story less engaging than Charlie’s journey, but in later episodes I found the tracking of Salim’s family and the hunt for the next bombing target a bit confusing. I was pretty content to be swept along, though, and nailing the intricacies (like what exactly happened with the radio battery in the last episodes) will come on re-watch. And while we don’t see the depth of Kurtz’s character that we do in the books, his opposition to his masters’ methods, natural skills at spy work, and his acceptance of the ugly arithmetic of the spy trade all very le Carré. The fact that his plan resulted in a precision assassination of Khalil instead of the carpetbombing of innocents his superiors were pushing for is an unambiguous win in the intelligence column, but Charlie’s refusal to shake his hand at their parting is also earned and makes total sense, particularly in light of his ruthless desire to force her into a long-term deep-cover assignment with Khalil.

The now-expected le Carré cameo: I’d assumed he was the companion of Professor Minkel in episode 5, but he was actually the waiter in the Salzburg café.
posted by myotahapea at 11:09 AM on January 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

Thanks for posting this! Just finished the first two parts and I'm really drawn in.

"This is your debut in the theatre of the real."

There's a Chekov's ("Palestinian") in an early scene with the house bomb that shows how effective the "experimental theater" worked.

Agreed about Pugh, very convincing in an sociopathic charm kind of way. I thought that Skarsgård was solid, but a little bit strange as a casting choice?
posted by porpoise at 8:54 PM on January 28, 2019

I didn't know Chan Wook Park directed this series. I'll definitely have to check it out now.
posted by cazoo at 8:48 AM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

This was a great find, stylish and traveling in directions I wasn't expecting. Le Carre always brings something fresh to the spy thriller, and this doesn't appear to have been dumbed down from the book. Florence Pugh was wonderful to watch through this.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:04 PM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

How does this compare to the night manager? Cause I found that was very stylish but also very shallow and totally didn't get le carre.
posted by smoke at 9:29 PM on January 29, 2019

How does this compare to the night manager?

If you’re hesitant purely based on your experience with The Night Manager, I would say you’re fine to give it a go. I love le Carré’s work but that book isn’t my favourite of his, and I think your analysis of the adaptation is accurate — stylish but shallow. I feel better choices were made with this adaptation, find the story more engaging (though that may be just me — I feel le Carré’s best work all falls in the Cold War era), and having the entire series directed by one person elevates the feel and gives it a nice cohesion.
(All that being said, it’s possible you’ll watch it and still not get/enjoy le Carré, though if you’re otherwise unfamiliar with his work it’s helpful to think of him as the anti-Ian Fleming.)
posted by myotahapea at 7:16 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks myotahapea, sounds good, I'll give it a crack. I meant the show didn't get le carre, not me - I'm a superfan!
posted by smoke at 12:45 PM on January 30, 2019

I thought that Skarsgård was solid, but a little bit strange as a casting choice?

I would agree. I have no complaints about his performance, but he seems a bit too … pretty? — as Becker. And there were a couple occasions where his eyes would do their puppy-dog thing for a moment, which knocked me out of seeing him as this hardened war hero who’s meant to be deeply conflicted over pushing a young, uninitiated field recruit into a dangerous situation.

(Apologies for mis-parsing your comment, smoke! I'm disappointed I couldn't enjoy The Night Manager more than I did, particularly with the amazing cast they had at their disposal. That tweaked ending still particularly irritates me.)
posted by myotahapea at 1:49 PM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]

The ending was infuriating and typified the series' dumb approach to the text, I thought!
posted by smoke at 4:05 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Finally got round to starting my re-watch yesterday, so a few additional observations from episodes 1 and 2:

It's Tischbier!
(I still maintain that ‘table beer’ is an … odd choice … for a character name.)

The exchange about Kurtz/Marty’s concentration camp tattoo was a nice detail, added in the adaptation.

Glad to see Shimon is still as much of wet sandwich as he was in the source material.

“Just like you’re a peace-loving Israeli.”
That laugh of Marty’s in response — brilliant. Michael Shannon is a treasure.

Loving the Brutalist architectural touches in London and Germany — Charlie’s audition location, the Olympic village, Gadi’s ascetic flat. They contrast nicely with the southern European locations and the more extravagant period sets.

Marty and his briefcase full of eyeglasses, selecting a persona for Charlie’s interview.

It took me a some time to notice the subtle blurring at the top and bottom of the frame, but it adds nicely to the overall feel.

I don’t really wear colour or dresses, and would look hideous in every last one of those styles to boot, yet I still want all of Charlie’s dresses. Gadi/Michel’s red shirt with white topstitching, not so much.
posted by myotahapea at 8:08 AM on January 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed this a lot. I grew up on spy novels and le Carré was my favorite, and lately I favor slow-burn television, so this was right up my alley.

It's interesting to me that most people seem to understand spy stories to be all about the intrigue and suspense. But the very best of the genre, almost without exception, is really about the soul-corroding essence of a career of deceipt and betrayal.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:07 PM on February 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

It took me a some time to notice the subtle blurring at the top and bottom of the frame, but it adds nicely to the overall feel.

That actually comes from the vintage anamorphic lenses that were used on the production. Older anamorphics often have a blurred/hazy look toward the edges of the frame. You would have noticed it on the sides, too, I think, had the native production format not been cropped for the narrower HDTV frame. Anamorphics are very trendy right now, in part because there's a lot of older glass on the market that gives you a more distinctive look even with digital cameras.

I enjoyed the miniseries even though I had just read the novel and didn't think the show was a patch on the book. It seemed like Park was intrigued by the whole "theater of the real" conceit and did a little experimentation with explicitly layering the fiction-inside-the-fiction on top of the narrative but didn't really commit to it as a formal concept or anything like that. Someone like Fincher might be insane-perfectionist enough to do more on the schematic side like that, but then you risk the whole thing going chilly. Park, who tends toward wicked humor, kept that sensibility mostly in check.

I felt like both Shannon and Skarsgaard, the latter especially, were miscast though in this case both actors are so charismatic I can understand the mistake. Florence Pugh on the other hand was near perfection. She was fucking great and I am now a super fan.
posted by Mothlight at 6:01 PM on February 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

Florence Pugh on the other hand was near perfection. She was fucking great and I am now a super fan.

Right!? After this Lady Macbeth and King Lear got moved up to the top of my 'to watch' list.
posted by myotahapea at 8:58 AM on February 9, 2019

Great miniseries! I watched this on the heels of Night Manager and was well rewarded. Although phew, this show hits a bit different in the teeth of the current war in Gaza.

Someone asked above about comparing the two. They're similar in being tight, well produced 6 hourish adapations of Le Carré books. I think Night Manager was more fun with some James Bond panache of locations, handsome men, swagger. Drummer Girl feels more meaningful in its story though, a really poignant exploration of what it means to go undercover and the moral compromises of assassinating terrorists. It's a much more human script. Both are good.

The performances are what sold this show. Florence Pugh is just fantastic. (I feel like I know her but the only thing I know I've seen her in are the MCU dreck. She's got a meaty role in Dune Part II, that should be fun.) Alexander Skarsgård is fantastic, I love him in everything I've seen him in. Michael Shannon was also great as Marty although I had a very hard time swallowing his accent. All three fully inhabit their characters and convey a lot of the emotional nuance that makes the story interesting. I should probably give the director credit for that too.

What I didn't get was Charlie's writing, in particular her motivation and why she of all people was picked up by the Israeli spies. I get the broad outlines; she's got the right combination of acting talent, lack of ties to British society, and a vague political feeling. But it just seemed so improbable, I kept waiting for some extraordinary thing ("my boyfriend's dad was at the Munich olympics") that would explain it all. I also didn't get the subplot of "maybe Charlie will turn to the Palestinian side" the Israelis keep worrying about. That is an interesting idea! But we never see much of it from Charlie's POV, just her human sympathy for the leaders she is wooing. It's all in service to Charlie's character as an actor, someone devoid of her own personal convictions, but it made it hard to understand why she was putting herself at such incredible risk for people s he barely knew. I guess that's the power of Acropolis spy love.

Anyway, great TV. I fear they're running out of le Carré novels to adapt!
posted by Nelson at 8:05 AM on November 17, 2023

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