What a welcome trend it is watching John le Carré’s back catalogue gradually get adapted into lavish, compelling new TV miniseries. The latest production in this vein is The Little Drummer Girl, a six-episode adaptation of le Carré’s 1983 bestseller. Unlike The Night Manager, which updated its subject matter for contemporary audiences, The Little Drummer Girl — directed with a keen eye by Park Chan-Wook — stays squarely in its historical era to spin an intricate tale of ruthless intelligence-world sparring between Israeli spies and Palestinian terrorists.
The hero — le Carré’s only female protagonist, if I’m not mistaken — is Charmian “Charlie” Ross (Florence Pugh), an idealistic, passionate young actress with a radical, left-wing political bent. Charlie’s performing skills and ideological predisposition get her on the radar of Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), a committed Mossad mastermind determined to penetrate and destroy a Palestinian terrorist organization. With a manipulative assist from conflicted field agent Gadie Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), Kurtz recruits Charlie by presenting her with the role of a lifetime: portraying the devoted girlfriend of a Palestinian terrorist, in order to maneuver her into position to strike a killing blow against the organization’s leader. With both her passion for immersive performance and her own better nature weaponized against her, Charlie guardedly accepts the mission, but its escalating successes increasingly cast her conscience into turmoil, as the betrayals and deceptions of the spy game increasingly take their toll.
For all his strengths as a storyteller, le Carré has an abysmal track record when it comes to female characters. The Little Drummer Girl, at least in this adaptation, presents one of his best, primarily on the strength of Florence Pugh’s riveting central performance. Despite the unflattering machinations of le Carré’s path for Charlie, Pugh sells her character’s fire, resolve, and resourcefulness with electrifying aplomb. In light of that, it’s absolutely mad she receives third billing behind the higher-profile Shannon and Skarsgård. Both of them are well cast and effective as the shifty spies battling their scruples to move Charlie through the maze, but they essentially headline Pugh’s supporting cast, which also includes fine work from Lubna Azabal, Simona Brown, Charles Dance, Clare Holman, Amir Khoury, Michael Moshonov, and Katharina Schüttler, among others.
Buoyed by excellent performances and le Carré’s usual gift for intricate plotting and incisive moral commentary on the secret world, the series already has a lot going for it. But the real star of the series may well be its visual composition. It perfectly captures the grungy look and feel of its late-seventies setting, without overstepping into pastiche. The style adds a brighter, dirtier, more unusual flavor to the series, giving its ambience a tantalizing hybrid feel that’s part prestige TV, part gritty seventies B-movie. Overall, The Little Drummer Girl is another impressive filmic outing sure to win more converts to le Carré’s oeuvre.