There’s something about how John LeCarre’s work is adapted for the screen that has always stood apart from other espionage brands. Although the world is still full of suspense, with potential for sex and violence, it doesn’t play the bling-encrusted game like Fleming or rack up the bullet count like Clancy.
LeCarre’s spy-masters are crafty, cunning, and singularly-driven. They are visionary strategists with (often) unpopular approaches to solving potentially-catastrophic situations. But, make no mistake, no matter the level of their genius, they WORK at their craft to be successful. The labor required is palpable.
Michael Shannon (Broadwalk Empire) pulls the puppet-strings here as Mossad operative, Martin Kurtz. He plays every move with calculation and precision. When he meets with military big-wig, Noah Gavron (Shlomo Bar-Aba, Uri and Ella) he already knows the five agents he’ll need the budget for. So he asks for a budget for ten and gets the five he needs.
LeCarre’s work has historically (and arguably) worked better in its adaptations for television (The Night Manager, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) than film (Our Kind of Traitor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) probably because the mini-series format allows the slow-build and time-lapses that the intricate plots rely on.
The Little Drummer Girl was adapted in 1984 as a feature film starring Diane Keaton as Charlie, an American actress “with a penchant for lying” recruited to a potentially deadly spy operation. This new adaptation bends back towards the source material, making Charlie an English actress (Florence Pugh, Marcella) who is naturally skilled at observation and remembering details.
We get a monster slow build in the premiere as we learn the characters involved and the mission objective – to infiltrate and destroy the terrorist, Khalil, a bomb-maker of exquisite skill who kills a young boy as collateral damage for taking out a Talmudic scholar living in the house at the start of the episode.
The boy’s father, Aaron Fineberg (Vitali Friedland, The Children of USSR), is wracked with the guilt of being tricked into physically bringing the bomb into the house thinking it was their au pair‘s suitcase. In secure interrogation, Kurtz is soft-spoken but precise with his questions to bring out the details of the girl used to transport the bomb.
Using this information, Kurtz’s unit is able to track down the girl, Anna Witgen (Iben Akerlie, Mammon), and thus track down Khalil’s baby brother, Salim (Amir Khoury, Fauda), who seems to be in charge of recruiting Western women to act as bomb mules.
Once they have a bead on Salim, his minutes are numbered in single digits. With mind-boggling speed, he’s ambushed by a team of Kurtz’s agents as he crosses the Turkish border in his little red Mercedes.
Kurtz’s plan unfolds in alternating scenes with Charlie’s early adventure. When we first meet her, she is screen-testing as an audition and, when given the leeway to make the given scene (which wasn’t working for her at all) her own, we see her take a memory of a real event with friends, and turn it into a brilliant but fictitious testimonial of love.
It’s her performance as Joan of Arc (possible foreshadowing there) that draws the attention of Kurtz’s agent in London. The next thing we know, the entire theatre company is flown down to Greece for some relaxation and rehearsal by an anonymous patron.
While frolicking and running lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the attention of company members (both male and female) is drawn by a mysterious figure on the beach (Alexander Skarsgard, True Blood) and they quickly convince him to join their merry band.
The dynamic between Peter Richthoven, as he eventually introduces himself as, and Charlie starts of extremely edgy, bordering on antagonism on her part. She doesn’t trust him but mostly because she doesn’t trust her attraction to him. She suspects that he’s the reason her troupe is in Greece but can get him to neither confirm nor deny that.
Skarsgard is expertly enigmatic here. Richthoven moves like a shadow around the bright spark that is Charlie, his voice low to her chirp, his expressions micro to her effusiveness. It’s a fabulous juxtaposition of contrasts and Pugh’s Charlie is unable to pull away from the tension building between them.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that he appeals to her 1970’s “progressiveness” and love of “dodgy” men. So when he asks her to join him on a jaunt to Athens, it seems completely on the up-and-up, right?
Yeah, her radar comes up pretty quick once they dock in Athens. She spots Rose (Kate Sumpter), a woman she’d met on the beach a few days before, but when she tries to greet her, Rose pays her no attention and speeds off in a car.
Peter casually (and with noticeable coolness) helps her into a familiar-looking little red Mercedes waiting for them dockside and Charlie immediately notices a green jacket in the backseat.
After a rather abruptly aborted tryst at a temple by the Acropolis, Peter drives with great haste to a new destination. Charlie’s terrified by this turn of events and begs him to stop the car. When he finally pulls to a stop, his only words of comfort are, “I have lied to you as little as possible.” Wow. Thanks.
With that, he gets out and the door in front of them opens to reveal Kurtz and some of his team members, including Rose and Rachel (Simona Brown, The Night Manager), the woman who had played the bait to nab Salim.
The women help an understandably shaken Charlie out of the car and bring her to meet Kurtz who introduces himself as the “producer, writer, and director of our little show” and makes it clear she has a part to play.
It’s a solid start to what promises to be an intense orchestration of players and circumstance. The visuals are striking, using the strong lines and colors of 70s style to jar the eye as well as draw attention. I’m quite in love with the opening credits which indicate both plot points and conflicts that are still to be introduced.
Michael Shannon is amazing in his role as Kurtz. I’ll need more time to decide on what I think of “Peter” and Charlie as believable characters. I look forward to Khalil’s appearance (he’s only been glimpsed as the bomb-maker so far) since the quality of villain often defines that of the mission in thrillers.
The Little Drummer Girl airs on AMC in three two-hour events. Parts 2 and 3 will air on November 26 and December 3 at 9/8c.
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