The Little Drummer Girl, the new miniseries based on the John le Carré novel, is a taut, character-driven thriller about the causes close to the heart, of home and country, of love and desire, and of what is right and what is decent. It’s a fantastic six hours, produced by The Night Manager team and directed by Park Chan-Wook of Oldboy and The Handmaiden fame, where a steady hand and careful focus on its central characters brings a series of high emotional impact.
At its heart is Charlie (Florence Pugh), an English actress brought on board to help infiltrate and thwart Palestinian bombings of Israeli targets in the ’70’s. She is recruited by Becker (Alexander Skarsgård) and Kurtz (Michael Shannon) to help act her way into the terror group and find those responsible. It starts with a lot of setting up these circumstances, but it helps establish the characters in their trajectories.
A strong sense of unknowing what is real and what is the mission plays at Charlie and her trust in Becker, their back and forth and molding of roles a key to their relationship, a seductive restraint rare to recent film and television, which Chan-wook uses advantageously. There is a give and take to their chemistry, where at times their feelings may be all out on the table, but perhaps it’s only whom they are playing is what we see, than their truths.
The spy games and deciphering of information is excellent here, with the team piecing together the various threads while constructing the narrative for Charlie to wind her way into becoming part of the camp. From soundproof boxes and cold techniques, it’s a tough affair of accepting their methods. But the series does take the time needed to show sides at war, desperate to take down one another, with Charlie caught in the middle.
Park Chan-wook is subtle in his direction, owing more to 70’s political and spy thrillers than to his own past work. There are little flourishes reminiscent of his films, quick cinematic techniques, used expertly and at times psychologically, but they are few and work in their respective scenes. It’s a well-crafted series, feeling like it was made during its time period with its rich color and gorgeous costume design.
But it’s in the acting where The Little Drummer Girl truly shines. Pugh has proven herself an exceptionally talented actress, and here she continues with an unbelievably raw performance. Her character goes through a lot in these six episodes, and Pugh never misses a beat, drawing you in and holding your attention. Shannon as the spymaster Kurtz is mesmerizing, his steely gaze and intense determination captivating in every scene he’s in. Skarsgård does quite well, too, a quiet character as he is usually more accustomed to, where his pained expressions and chemistry with Pugh help sell Becker, who is on purpose a hard to read blank slate. There’s a late game addition of Charles Dance to the cast, whose backhanded and snide remarking Picton is a fun foil for Shannon to bounce off of.
The Little Drummer Girl is a great miniseries, despite some small shortcomings in the back half in terms of losing sight or moving too fast through some characters’ motivations. It’s a tiny bump, however, in an otherwise beautiful and gripping piece of television. Its power is in its actors, and in a show about acting and living your role, it’s the power which matters the most.
The Little Drummer Girl airs weekly on BBC Sundays and will air on AMC starting November 19th at 9pm EST, two hours nightly in a three-day limited series event. All six episodes were provided for review.