For an industry that worships youth, it’s perhaps surprising that one of Hollywood’s most sought after writers is one now nearly in his 90s, whose work has been making it to the screen for half a century. But the last ten years or so have seen John Le Carré’s spy novels become more popular than ever for film and TV adaptation. Beginning with the acclaimed versions of “The Constant Gardener” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” we’ve seen Le Carré’s work reach screens at an impressive rate, taking in Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man,” Susannah White’s “Our Kind Of Traitor,” and the hit miniseries “The Night Manager,” soon to get a second season.
Next up to bat is “The Little Drummer Girl,” Le Carré’s 1983 novel, initially filmed soon after by George Roy Hill with Diane Keaton in the lead role. The new take, a six episode miniseries, hails from The Ink Factory, the company run by the writer’s sons and which also made “The Night Manager,” and like that series, it’ll air on the BBC in the UK and AMC in the U.S.
But there’s reason to be as if not more excited about this than any other previous Le Carré adaptation – it’s been directed in this entirety by the great Park Chan-Wook, the man behind “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” and “The Handmaiden.” And at least judging by the first two episodes that world premiered today at the BFI London Film Festival, Director Park has not disappointed in the least.
In West Germany in 1979, a bomb explodes in the house of the Israeli attaché. The diplomat himself is by chance unharmed, but his child is killed. Mossad agent ‘Marty’ (Michael Shannon) quickly assembles a team to go after the people responsible, and they quickly work out that the man responsible is Salim (Amir Khoury), the youngest brother of Palestinian terror leader Khalil, whose orders he was carrying out. But getting to Khalil will require some ingenuity on their part.
Meanwhile, in London, Charlie (“Lady Macbeth” breakout Florence Pugh) is an actress with semi-radical politics in the Vanessa Redgrave mold, whose theatre troupe are invited to perform in Greece by a mysterious benefactor. While there, she forms an attraction to an enigmatic stranger (Alexander Skarsgard), who invites her to join him in Athens. It’s probably not giving too much away to say that he’s part of Marty’s team, and they’re planning to recruit her to infiltrate TK’s operation.
As ever with Le Carré, it’s fairly complex stuff, but Park and writer Michael Lesslie (who’s done a terrific job here in general) take real pleasure in parceling out the twists and revelations across these first couple of episodes, with some clever perspective shifts that are reminiscent of Park’s last film “The Handmaiden” in particular. It doesn’t shy away from the thorniness of the politics, either: Israel and Palestine is virtually one of Hollywood’s last taboos, but two episodes in the show’s approach has been rational but even handed, neither demonizing nor valorizing either side.
Indeed, given the history of directors doing TV work (thinking of the disappointingly anonymous work of, say, James Gray), this is surprisingly undiluted Park for the most part: it feels from the first shot like it fits beautifully into his oeuvre, with the camera constantly placed or moving in bold and unexpected places and ways, and a striking use of color throughout (he’s working for the first time with DP Kim Woo-hyung, of “Assassination”).
Indeed, it looks fabulous throughout, with the production design in particular a real treat: it’s not a huge shock to learn that Park has used Maria Djurkovic, who also worked on Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – there’s a similar level of intense detail and mid-century modern architecture to the work here (though this is a little glossier, which is actually somewhat of a relief. The editing is particularly good too, thanks to Stephen Frears and Lynne Ramsay veteran Lucia Zuccheti – it moves at a pace and with a wit that puts “The Night Manager” to shame, and steers well clear of the sloggy quality that so much prestige TV drama has, at least two episodes in.
The premise — actress turned spy! — might seem a little more contrived than some of Le Carré’s work, but Park and Lesslie work that into the very fabric of the whole, making this a spy story about the artifice, performance and showmanship of espionage. Some of Marty’s Mossad colleagues want to just fire a rocket at the perpetrators, but he describes himself as a ‘creative,’ and later as the ‘producer, writer and director’ of the operation. The show is as interested in the how as the why, and there’s something almost joyous in the way that Charlie is initiated in the tradecraft.
As for the three leads, they’re all absolutely superb. Skarsgard is an actor I’m coming to appreciate more and more, and there’s a real soulfulness to his Becker from the moment we see him. Shannon is a total delight (and clearly having a blast) too, playing the spymaster so big that you suspect that the gorgeous production design might contain some of his teethmarks, but never breaking the reality either. Every second on screen is fun to watch.
Best of all might be Pugh, who delivers on the promise she showed in “The Falling” and “Lady Macbeth” and then some. The actress has such a distinctive presence, at once ten years older and ten years younger than she really is, and she’s quick to show that so much of Charlie’s life has been a performance even before her recruitment. It’s a performance of amazing range and maturity, and seems likely to send her supernova.
If we had a criticism after two episodes, other than not being able to watch the other four immediately, it’s that the supporting cast mostly hasn’t yet been given a chance to flex their muscles properly (though Claire Holman does get to stand out as one of Marty’s team). But that’s really splitting hairs, and with four hours to go there’s plenty of time to flesh them out a little.
I’m admittedly an easy mark for something like this — the midpoint of “Tinker Tailor” and “Munich” directed by a Korean New Wave filmmaker is pretty much my idea of heaven. But it’s hard to imagine someone watching these first two episodes and not finding them to be deeply pleasurable, artful and gripping. TV drama in 2018 has left some of its very, very best for last. [A]
Episodes 1 & 2 of “The Little Drummer Girl” premiered at the BFI London Film Festival today. It begins airing on the BBC on Oct 28th, and on AMC as a three-part event between November 19th and 21st.