The Little Drummer Girl review: BBC's new John Le Carré adaptation is a compelling, edge-of-the-seat thriller

Rajesh Thind

October 22, 2018 15:24:18 IST

The Little Drummer Girl, the latest adaptation of a John Le Carré spy novel, made as a multi-part series for television, brings together some top notch European acting talent and esteemed director Park Chan-Wook. The result is a compelling, edge-of-the-seat thriller that combines the
cerebral plotting of the book with the slick directorial approach we’ve come to expect from the South Korean director of the classic Old Boy. If you’re partial to spy thrillers, this new release (the first two parts of which just screened at London Film Festival) will surely have you reaching for the popcorn and settling in for a binge watch.

Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard in The Little Drummer Girl. Image via BBC

Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard in The Little Drummer Girl. BBC

For all his insider savvy about the dark arts of espionage, however, spy-scribe-master John Le Carré has not always had the best of luck when it comes to screen adaptations of his work. The Little Drummer Girl was first made into a film back in 1984, starring Diane Keaton, Yorgo Voyagis and Klaus Kinski, and helmed by George Roy Hill, director of such classics as Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1968) and The Sting (1973). Despite the eminent, multi-Oscar winning pedigree of the players, it’s safe to say that on that occasion The Little Drummer Girl didn’t quite hit the beat (see for yourselves, it’s on YouTube in its entirety).

Perhaps this is why Le Carré (or David Cornwell, to use his real name) has, in recent years, learnt to be rather more circumspect about the producers he gives the film rights to his books to. After Le Carré’s commercial cache was reinvigorated by the critical and commercial success of 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, made for the big screen by Studio Canal and Working Title Films (among other partners), Le Carré has mostly decided to work with the producers he knows best — his sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell, through their company, The Ink Factory.

Keeping it in the family has worked a treat for the Cornwells, with 2014’s taut Film4 funded version of A Most Wanted Man and 2016’s BBC TV series The Night Manager both squarely hitting the bulls eye. If they carry on like this, they’ll soon be giving Barbara Broccoli — official keeper of James Bond’s seemingly Eternal Flame — a run for her money.

Skarsgård and Michael Shannon in a still from the series. Image via AMC

Skarsgård (L) and Michael Shannon in a still from the series. AMC

This latest offering, a series funded by the BBC and the American channel AMC, has at its centre the character of Charlie, a young British theatre actress prone to spinning webs of fantasies and lies, and as such, a ripe target for an intelligence agency in need of a pretty young thing who can improvise as if her life depends on it, which it soon will if they have their way.

Played by the excellent Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, The Falling), Charlie finds herself being recruited by Israeli spies in order to infiltrate a Palestinian bomb-making terrorist cell (Continuing the family connection, Le Carré has said that he partly based the character of Charlie on his own half sister, Charlotte Cornwell, who in the early 1980s was herself an actress with radical politics).

Alexander Skarsgard heads the Israeli espionage team, making a far more convincing puller of the strings than Klaus Kinski ever did, leading a notably good looking cast of honey-trappers (male and female), surveillance experts and other assorted spy staples. The action is sleek, the locations are varied and exotic, and the performances are all strong.

Another still from The Little Drummer Girl. Image via BBC

Another still from The Little Drummer Girl. BBC

But for all of this, and admittedly based solely on having seen just the first two episodes of this series, I’d also sound a note of caution to the Cornwell clan. For all the polished surfaces and glossy locations of this production, there’s a feeling I couldn’t quite shake while watching the non-stop action that this winning formula they have stuck upon could, if they are not careful, soon start to feel like just that: a bit of a formula. All the beats in the right places, the turning points as sharp as nails, everyone so damn glossy, good looking and well groomed...

Call me old fashioned, but personally I have always loved the way in which Le Carré’s novels never shy away from the grimier, grittier aspects of the spy’s morally dubious profession, and the best film versions of his work retain much of that feeling of the proceedings all being rather sordid and mired in a dirty game of power, paranoia and betrayal. Think Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, or Alex Guinness in Smiley’s People: distinctly unglamorous, decidedly dark-hearted. Even 007 has, in recent years, got harder round the edges and more sullied in the soul, so I hope Le Carré’s nuanced work doesn’t fall into being made too popcorn friendly, both in the rest of this series and in the burgeoning Cornwell Family franchise in the years ahead.

Updated Date: Oct 22, 2018 15:24 PM