The work of John le Carré has been adapted to film and television for decades now. His particular brand of espionage doesn’t rely on relentless action sequences, fight choreography, or extended bouts of gunplay. Instead, it’s most often about the emotional and psychological toll one pays for their participation in clandestine operations. As such, le Carré’s stories, though they may be set during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, in contemporary Hamburg, Germany in response to the influx of immigrants, or, like AMC’s new adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl, in the late ‘70s, depicting the strife of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which a young, idealistic, English actor, Charlie (Florence Pugh), finds herself playing the ultimate part in a covert operation to thwart a bombing campaign that’s already claimed several lives, notably that of an eight-year-old boy in his own home in West Germany.
Despite the period trappings, there's a sense of timelessness to le Carré’s work, in that the themes and ideas he visits in his novels remain pertinent, even in 2018. That allows AMC’s new miniseries event the chance to feel contemporary and to draw parallels to present-day political discord, even though this particular story takes place nearly four decades ago. Much of that comes from the author’s attention to detail in the workday lives of those in the spy trade, details that speak to something more than getting the bad guy or saving the world. Instead, there’s a deeper emotional distress to many of his characters that makes these spies, and the people who end up caught in their conspiratorial webs, far more relatable than they otherwise might be. Just look at stories like Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People, or, perhaps the most effective example of this kind of emotionally fraught storytelling, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (which will be retold on TV with Game of Thrones’ Adian Gillen in the role played by Richard Burton in the 1965 film adaptation). Add that sense of desperation and ethical uncertainty to the gorgeous visuals of director Park Chan-wook, and you have one of the best spy thrillers in recent memory.
2018 has been a good year for spies on television. From Counterpart to Killing Eve to the excellent Patriot, there’s been a number of different takes on and extensions of the genre. For its part, The Little Drummer Girl plays things a little more straightforward — well, as straightforward as a series whose plot is as labyrinthine as this one can get. It is a no-frills spy thriller that sells itself on being an exemplar of the genre and by having the performances to back it up. Like 2016’s The Night Manager, Drummer Girl has attracted some impressive list talent, including Michael Shannon as Martin Kurtz, Alexander Skarsgård as Gadi Becker, and Florence Pugh as Charlie, the aforementioned actor who is far more involved in political activism than she initially lets on.
Though the cast is phenomenal and each actor brings a particular flavor to the proceedings, The Little Drummer Girl sees both its style and substance elevated thanks to the masterful direction of Park Chan-wook. The director of such films as Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, Stoker, The Handmaiden, and more, is at the top of his game, working within the morally complex world of le Carré. And here, in this particular narrative, where the line between fiction and reality is deliberately blurred by those participating in this covert exercise, Chan-wook weaves that fiction (well, many fictions, really) with clever edits and camera movements that move backwards and forwards in time and in and out of reality seamlessly. The effect, then, is a spy story that borders on the surreal at times, as Kurtz’s team manufactures a backstory for Charlie with a terrorist named Michel, whose real name is Salim, and who is replaced by Becker, all in an effort to track and apprehend a serial bomber using young Western women to deliver the explosives to their intended targets.
It’s a complicated plot, as some of le Carré’s best work is, and it’s one that doesn’t deliver the same highs and lows as a more conventional, mainstream spy story. The series' various convolutions can make it difficult to fully absorb and appreciate some of the twists and turns, but The Little Drummer Girl rewards its viewers with a thought-provoking through-line that examines the desperation and emotional remove and isolation of these characters on account of the shady “business” they’re in. Complicating matters further is Becker and Charlie’s relationship, a seemingly conventional romance in the making that’s made less predictable by both characters’ shifting perceptions of themselves and of each other.
Tying it all together is Shannon’s Kurtz, an old-school spy wrangler who perhaps isn’t as morally and ethically compromised as he puts on — then again, maybe he’s worse. Kurtz doesn’t just blur the lines between playacting and reality, he fiddles with them until it’s impossible to distinguish between the two. For Kurtz, all the world is a stage and he’s the director, which makes him well-suited for the task at hand, one that favors patience over brute force or campaigns of shock and awe.
The Kurtz method of espionage applies to the audience as well. The Little Drummer Girl will reward those watching for their patience with a thoughtful story and deliberate pace that encourages viewers to become swept up in just how visually stunning the miniseries is. The show might be helped by AMC’s plan to turn the six-episode miniseries into the three-night event, as it works quite well as a binge-watch, building tension over hours instead of weeks. In all, this latest adaptation of le Carré’s work is a beautiful-looking thriller that emphasizes brains over brawn.
The Little Drummer continues Tuesday, November 20 @9pm on AMC.