LFF review: BBC1’s ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ is luxuriously cinematic
14 October 2018 18:54
For those eagerly awaiting the second season of The Night Manager – the hugely popular, critically acclaimed 2016 drama series based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name – take comfort in the fact that a six-part adaptation of le Carré’s 1983 novel The Little Drummer Girl is arriving on TV this autumn to keep you entertained while you wait. The actors, director – Park Chan-wook – and the story might be different, but the overall sensibility is the same, which is understandable since, like The Night Manager, it’s a co-production between the BBC, AMC in America and The Ink Factory. If the first two episodes are anything to go by, The Little Drummer Girl is a sumptuously shot, high concept 1979-set international thriller that revolves around the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
As with many of le Carré’s plots, at its heart is an ordinary person swept up in the world of espionage. Florence Pugh is excellently cast as the feisty Charlie, a young actress whose sympathy for the Palestinian cause captures the attention of Kurtz, an Israeli spymaster played by Michael Shannon – invitingly amenable but with a hint of steeliness beneath the surface that’s sure to come out in the form of ruthlessness in future episodes – who’s orchestrating an ambitious infiltration of the enemy camp. He thinks Charlie’s got what it takes to hold her own in the ‘theatre of the real’ and thus far, it looks like he’s right. Although very much a period piece, the second episode makes crystal clear a rhetoric of radicalisation that’s still extremely relevant when it comes to certain contemporary fears.
The Little Drummer Girl proves itself the perfect vehicle for this new TV/movie hybrid. Seeing it on the big screen might seem strange given the drama has been made specifically for TV, but it’s the perfect opportunity to highlight Woo-hyung Kim’s stunning cinematography – he’s especially good at using the stark geometric angles and symmetry of urban features to frame the characters – the first episode in particular features a series of majestic wide-lens aerial shots as the camera soars above buildings. Most notable though are the scenes shot in the deserted Acropolis at night – all sharp-edged chiaroscuro that can’t help but benefit from being viewed in the cinema.
Indeed, there’s something distinctly cinematic about the entire enterprise, unsurprising, perhaps, given this is Park Chan-wook’s TV debut. In the same luxurious way that he combined elements of Western fin de siècle Gothic with traditional Japanese aesthetics in his previous film The Handmaiden, The Little Drummer Girl is a highly stylized period piece, a far cry from the dingy world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s mud brown bellbottoms. The screen pops with bursts of bright colour, from the beautiful blue of the Aegean – Charlie’s recruited by a Mossad agent named Becker (Alexander Skarsgård playing the strong silent type) while in Greece – through to the bold interior decor. It’s no coincidence that in one of the very first scenes Kurtz has an eyewitness to a bombing labour over the colour of the car he saw outside the house that was destroyed. ‘Salmon, peach, Viennese sausage,’ the eyewitness says, struggling to be as specific as he can. ‘Copper brown,’ translates Kurtz, knowing exactly what colour this particular brand of vehicle comes in. Costume designer Sheena Napier also goes to town, dressing Pugh in a series of voluminous floor length, silk dresses and jumpsuits, each a bold primary colour – it’s a masterclass in colour blocking. Also keep an eye out for the image of a team of Mossad agents sucking on Rocket ice lollies – each a trio of stripes: red, orange and yellow – while planning the next move in their master plan.
I’ll definitely be tuning in to the remaining episodes when they air on BBC1 later in the month.