Five Israeli Mossad agents sitting around in a secret suite at the Olympic Village in Munich, discussing the interstices of their latest highly complex espionage operation, licking Zoom lollies, the rocket-shaped ones, against the audio backdrop of the muffled screams of a captured Palestinian terrorist. Virtually everything is some shade of brown or olive green. Yes, it’s the Seventies, John le Carré style.
And a very stylish adaption of his novel The Little Drummer Girl this continues to be, not least thanks to the excellence of director Park Chan-wook, who makes the very best of the sometimes grim (squalid cell), sometimes magnificent (the Acropolis) settings. The cinematography is rich, almost distracting in its brilliance. There is, for example, a short sequence when the Israeli spy boss Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) meets his West German counterpart for coffee and baumkuchen in a cafe. The interior of the cafe is barely seen, and much of their revealing conversation is shown in the plate-glass reflection of the baroque palace opposite. It is a perfect visual metaphor for the demi-monde of the security services.
It is in that conversation that Kurtz realises that his plan to infiltrate a Palestinian terror cell is in imminent danger of going badly wrong, and that his spies are being drawn into a trap. That, too, is another moment when we see the real quality of this typical le Carré hero. For here is someone many of us (well, I speak for my own dull-witted self) would long to be: with a super-computer for a mind that can calculate a dozen steps ahead of anyone else, and all done with a certain coolness, precision of expression and artistry about them.
Indeed, Kurtz calls himself “an artist”, and sees the great subterfuge he has designed as a “production”, in the “theatre of the real” – the ultimate improvisation roles for the two “stars” he has chosen.
The stars of his performance are, first, Charmian “Charlie Ross” (Florence Pugh), a young, usually resting, British actor of about 25, with radical instincts and certainly no previous contact with the Israelis; and one of Kurtz’s own best young former agents, coaxed back to work (another le Carré hallmark) for this assignment.
This is Gabi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard) who goes through such a bewildering schedule of pseudonyms that I had to make a note, as follows: Gabi (handsome, Israeli James Bond type, tried to get away from Mossad by studying architecture) = Joseph/Jose (the name he adopts in order to chat up and then snare Charlie) = Michel (name he uses when playing a Palestinian terrorist’s own alter ego, ie the pseudonym the terrorist himself uses) = Salim Al-Khadar (the terrorist, now languishing in a padded cell, and now to be supplanted by imposter Gabi). I think that’s right, anyway.
Almost everything about this production is wonderful. Like Kurtz, or le Carré for that matter, the production team’s attention to detail is impressive – the period touches, the old school Mercedes-Benz saloons (they don’t make ‘em like that any more), the aura of intelligence, in every sense of the word, that permeates this universe. The only thing missing is a group of them settling down to watch the BBC dramatisation of le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, coincidentally first broadcast in 1979.
Kurtz, especially, is intriguing. We feel a little better about his forcible imprisonment of the Palestinian when we understand, as we do from the first episode, that Salim is responsible for the death of an eight-year-old child of an Israeli diplomat – but Salim’s elder brother is the clever, more dangerous target. Kurtz, listening to a bugged recording of a political meeting Charlie attends hears her declare: “I for one don’t think the Jewish state has to be an American imperialist garrison that treats Arabs like dirt”. “Well, she’s got a point” he adds. When he meets Charlie in the comfortable surroundings of a luxury villa in Athens, he makes the argument for Israel with elegant economy: “Must all of us Jews pack up our belongings, return to our former countries and begin again? Wait for the next pogrom?”
Still though, I thought Charlie’s rapid transformation from scatty middle-class English Trot to willing Mossad operative is just a little too facile, notwithstanding Kurtz’s charm and powers of manipulation (mainly involving unpicking her lies about her supposedly miserable childhood).
Charlie seems all ready to shack up with Gabi/Salim for their actor-revolutionary double act, and all too willing to drive 800 miles across Europe with a cargo of Semtex. Of course it could be that she isn’t, and she’s just playing them all along… which is why I shall be watching the next episode with some trepidation.
Little Drummer Girl, BBC1, Sunday, 9pm
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies