“Heart and unfocused rage” is how Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) describes Charlie Ross (Florence Pugh) in The Little Drummer Girl. Those qualities make her the perfect candidate for a spy mission the Israelis are mounting against the Palestinians in the late 70s, one that takes Charlie’s confident political pronouncements and turns them into action. She’s young, self-assured, and talented — but she’s also a smooth liar. Ultimately, it’s a desperate truth that keeps her alive once she joins Martin’s operation.
The AMC miniseries, directed in full by Park Chan-wook, is the network’s latest adaption of a John le Carré novel, the last one being the gorgeously dynamic The Night Manager. In comparison, The Little Drummer Girl is far more subdued, not only because of the browns and grays of late-70s fashion or the gloomy skies of wintry England and Germany, but because Charlie and those she works with are exceptionally cautious and a little inscrutable. Most of the story is told in whispers, with Shannon in particular muttering beneath a thick mustache. There’s a wryness to him, but it’s only caught in glimpses (the series has an extremely quiet and only very occasional humor). It’s Pugh who really carries the miniseries with her boldness and charm, fully commanding the screen and giving a deeply natural and genuine performance as an amateur spy caught between two worlds.
Little Drummer Girl begins with an explosion, as a Jewish family’s home is targeted by a Palestinian bomb in West Germany. It’s more than a little unsettling given current events, and serves to underline just how cyclical this particular brand of hate and violence can be (something the narrative also addresses). But what makes this attack a particular flashpoint is that the Palestinian terrorists involved enlisted the aid of a Westerner — a blond, Swedish woman in fact — to lower defenses. The Israelis then decide to do the same, recruiting Charlie through a seductive fling with one of their operatives, Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard).
The relationship between Charlie and Gadi should be the smoldering core of the series, but the chemistry here never quite comes together. What’s more fascinating is how Gadi cultivates a fictional relationship with Charlie, one that she is well-aware of, as a substitute for a young Palestinian bomb-maker that she will have to eventually pretend to have been madly in love with in order to infiltrate his terrorist cell. It’s theater made real, and it’s wonderfully strange for Charlie and for viewers, especially as Chan-wook lets scenes from the fiction and reality blend together and fall apart, occasionally introducing dream sequences or other metaphorical visuals for Charlie’s confusion.
The Little Drummer Girl is certainly stylish, not in the same Vogue-like way Night Manager was, but through Chan-wook’s signature camera work. The miniseries is slow and moody, and it would be in danger of stalling out were it not for those little visual quirks and flourishes that breathe life back into it. Within the story, the most dynamic moments are when Charlie is unsure if she is loyal to Gadi’s side, or is becoming seduced by her fictional relationship and the Palestinian cell she becomes a part of. “The Palestinians are an easy people to love,” Gadi tells her, as Martin encourages Charlie’s ambivalence over who she really supports. It comes from truth; “who is she returning as, one of ours or one of theirs?” Gadi asks Martin. “It doesn’t matter,” he replies simply. They have her either way.
The miniseries spends so much time getting Charlie to that point though, meandering through scenes with her acting troupe and a sleepy trip they take to Greece, that by the time she’s in, there isn’t much time left to explore the nuances of her choices. This is where her attachment to Gadi starts to fall flat, especially once she meets the charismatic brother of the man she was supposedly in love with. He (Charif Ghattas), so late in the series, brings a burning energy to the story that Little Drummer Girl so dearly needs, especially because Charlie’s chemistry with him is so much stronger than her muted affair with Gadi.
For those who love stories about spies and the machinations of international spycraft, Little Drummer Girl will hit those traditional beats in some nontraditional ways, although it’s not as cheeky or sleek or seductive as others in its genre. The focus is more on Charlie’s inner turmoil than how Martin’s Mossad operation unfolds, and yet, there are some really fun and weird (and horrible) examples of it that are truly fascinating. That’s the thing about the miniseries — it’s interesting. But beyond that it can feel a little cold. Where is all of that heart and rage? In just 6 episodes, Little Drummer Girl covers a lot of ground narratively, but doesn’t always earn the emotions of each step. That ultimately leaves a tense finale but a hollow last few moments. Charlie remains uncertain of what this has all been for; she’s not alone. But perhaps the performance is in fact the thing.
Little Drummer Girl premieres with back-to-back episodes Monday, November 19th on AMC, and will run for three consecutive nights.