It is strange that while there are various great John Le Carré films – such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), A Most Wanted Man (2014, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films) and of course Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) – the author’s novels may be better suited to the longer format of the TV miniseries. Their stories benefit from being given the space to breathe, and their characters, especially those in the spy trade, could usually not be more different from the more cinematic likes of James Bond or Ethan Hunt. They are more likely to sit over a set of letters, recordings, photos or other documents for hours than to kill the villain, foil their plans and bed the lady.
They are also more likely to end up betraying those they care about most.
When the BBC adapted Le Carré’s The Night Manager for the screen, the result was actually not a million miles from the adventures of one James Bond, Esq. You had the pretty faces and the gorgeous locales, and while the baddie didn’t get booted off a high-rise building or blasted into space on a nuclear missile, he got what he deserved in the back of a Egyptian van. Starring Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie and Olivia Colman, The Night Manager was fun, exciting, a crowdpleaser – not the things most readily associated with the muddy, muddled world of John Le Carré. While the more recent endeavour, The Little Drummer Girl, also makes the material it is based on look somewhat less grim, the difference is more one of degree than anything else: The Little Drummer Girl has Le Carré’s penchant for murky ethics and betrayal on all sides down pat.
I’m by no means an expert on Le Carré, but I was surprised by the extent to which The Little Drummer Girl works on a more metaphorical level than the other novels, films and series I know. From the first, it sets up a parallel between spycraft with stagecraft. Its central character, Charmian “Charlie” Ross, played brilliantly by the always intriguing Florence Pugh, is a young actress who would deserve better than the small stages she appears on that are barely a step up from am-dram. Due to her acting abilities as much as her dabbling in left-wing radicalism (this is the 1970s, after all), she ends up on the radar of a rather ominous kind of casting agent, the Mossad operative Martin Kurtz (a remarkably mellow Michael Shannon). Kurtz offers her the kind of part she’s only dreamed of so far: Charlie is to play a version of herself that is the lover of the young Palestinian Salim, in order to gain access to Salim’s brother Khalil, who has concerted a bombing campaign across Europe.
There are only two problems with this: Charlie’s immediate sympathies lie more with the underdogs than with those in a position of power, and seeing the Mossad’s ruthless methods (she only meets Salim in person once, while he is a drugged captive, shortly before he meets his end in a burning car) strains her already precarious loyalties – and as she can only believingly act a part by becoming it, she finds herself at cross-purposes with the task she’s been given. And that’s before we get to her growing attraction to her Israeli handler, Gadi (Alexander Skarsgård), who wants to reciprocate but also hesitates since he understands better than her what he may be required to ask of her.
As so often with Le Carré, all kinds of betrayals are at the heart of the story. More than his pragmatic-to-a-cruel-fault superior Kurtz, Gadi is conflicted: he is asking Charlie to become someone, the lover and fellow traveller of a Palestinian terrorist/freedom fighter, so that they can betray that person. She couldn’t be convincing in her part if she didn’t feel it to some extent, yet she wouldn’t be able to do what she needs to do if she couldn’t betray that version of herself. What is an act, what is the truth, and how much can the two be kept separate? A lesser story would literalise this conflict, making us ask if Charlie is slowly going from wannabe radical to actual terrorist and if she still can be trusted to do the supposedly right thing – but The Little Drummer Girl is less interested in the simplest kind of will-she-or-won’t-she. It is more curious about what the continued roleplay is doing to its actors and the corrosive effect this Theatre of the Real, in Kurtz’ words, has on the people engaged in it.
As with The Night Manager, which was helmed by Susanne Bier, the BBC made an interesting choice of director: The Little Drummer Girl was directed by Park Chan-wook, whose The Handmaiden showed his adeptness at navigating stories about characters who play-act until the audience, and possibly the characters themselves, no longer know what is real and what is roleplay. His adaptation of Le Carré is less flamboyant than his films, but Park knows how to tell tales of treachery, blending the various roles, stages and stories deftly if elliptically. The Little Drummer Girl paints its star character as a survivor; this little drummer girl may survive to the end of the play, but the piper has to be paid, by her or by someone else. In Le Carré’s world, someone always betrays, someone is always betrayed, and more often than not there are those who end up having little choice but to do both.