The Little Drummer Girl will inevitably be compared to The Night Manager. Both are six-part adaptations of lesser John Le Carré novels, produced by the author’s sons in collaboration with the BBC and AMC, the American network. Before it was announced that The Night Manager was getting its own sequel, the temptation would have been even greater to see the new series as a successor. It is a relief that we do not have to, and can instead view the two series as cousins rather than brothers. They have their similarities – famous actors in glamorous locations, betraying and counter betraying, switching allegiances like coats – but there are plenty of differences, too.
On first impressions, The Little Drummer Girl does not exude the same likeability. The Night Manager had one of the smoothest casts in memory, Olivia Colman and Toms Hiddleston and Hollander all breezy to watch. Even as a reprehensible arms dealer, Hugh Laurie cannot help but purr across the screen. In Susanne Bier, too, it had a director who knows how to make a blockbuster for a global audience, and as a result, it was the high point of a certain kind of international executive Sunday night thriller.
If that was Coldplay or U2, The Little Drummer Girl is closer to jazz. It’s 1979, rather than the near-present, in central Europe. From the opening scene, in which a leather suitcase is delivered to an au-pair’s bedroom in Munich and then explodes, it is clear we are watching a different kind of programme. Much of this is down to Park Chan-wook, the director, a Korean auteur best known for his hyper-violent The Vengeance Trilogy. When I read he was down to direct this series I nearly fell off my chair. His trademarks are sensuality, pitch-dark humour, and familiar sights framed unconventionally. Stylish, but stylised. Not very BBC Sunday night.
The cast was as much of a surprise, too, after the Cambridge educated quartet in The Night Manager. The American Michael Shannon plays Martin Kurtz, an Israeli spymaster determined to bring down a Palestinian terrorist who has been targeting Jews. Alexander Skarsgard, after his turn in the risible Netflix sci-fi Mute, does his strong and silent thing again as Becker, an agent sent to recruit Charmian (Florence Pugh), a budding actor with a gift for dissembling and a frank manner, to Kurtz’s cause. Pugh had a wonderful breakthrough as Lady Macbeth last year and she again offers a presence and intelligence way beyond her 22 years.
I don’t think The Little Drummer Girl will be as popular as Laurie & Co’s production. It makes less effort to please. At times, it seems if it wants to unsettle. The dialogue occasionally feels stilted, as if even the speakers were picking their way through their sentences. The Seventies costume and settings are kind of gorgeously unstylish. Park’s directorial flourishes are everywhere. He does not aim to be invisible but to remind you constantly that what you are seeing is a creation. Take the scene at a beachside taverna in Greece, where Charmian and Becker start talking properly to each other. The camera stays still, the focus snaps between him and her. Or the denouement in Athens, so sumptuous that we forget the absurdity of spooks privately renting a temple to do their recruiting.
Some will see these as straightforward flaws, but the first episode is all the more satisfying for the way it draws attention to its own artifice. It is a beautiful and oddly disconcerting piece of filmmaking, steeped in the idea of appearances, and how they can be used to seduce and betray. Surfaces, details, attention: the language of cinema is not so different from the language of spying.
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