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The Little Drummer Girl - First episode review

The Little Drummer Girl

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THE BBC seems to have hit upon a winning formula for Sunday night success: spies, bombs and passion.

Following in close proximity to The Bodyguard, which also featured a tense bomb situation in its opening moments, and coming from the same creative team as The Night Manager, The Little Drummer Girl wasted little time in hooking viewers in with its stylish delivery.

Based on another of John Le Carré’s novels, the series picks up in Munich in 1972, as a bomb is delivered to the home of a Jewish family and promptly goes off. From there, it follows an Israeli spymaster named Martin Kurtz (played by Michael Shannon) as he formulates a daring plan (or “fiction”) to definitively bring down a Palestinian terror cell that has also been targeting Jews across Europe.

This plan involves recruiting a girl as bait for the cell to use for their own bomb delivery, in the form of aspiring British actress Charmian (Florence Pugh). She, in turn, is spotted and groomed by one of Kurtz’s team, Becker (Alexander Skarsgard).

The first episode focused largely on the recruitment process, as Becker sought to catch Charmian’s attention, while Kurtz put his pieces into play. And it was addictive stuff.

The director is also a coup for the BBC, being that they have managed to lure Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, the director best known for his hyper-violent The Vengeance Trilogy (including Oldboy). But while that kind of violence has yet to manifest itself, the filmmaker’s visual flair is abundantly clear.

His introduction to Charmian, for instance, is eye-catchingly distinct, as she’s caught in an audition and put through her paces by an invisible inquisitor. It’s a scene that deliberately invites comparisons to an interrogation, as Charmian is asked to interpret scenes according to a mood, before being asked to perform free-style. But it also shows the young actress as someone capable of thinking of obeying instructions and thinking on her feet.

Pugh, who has previously shone in last year’s Lady Macbeth, is incredibly versatile. And she grasps the opportunity to display her range with both hands.

But while such a scene subverts expectations and toys with genre convention, Chan-wook also displays a keen knack for conforming to them too. The ticking bomb that opens the episode is a master-class in tension, for example, as is his excellent use of exotic location (from Greek beaches to the Acropolis-based finale in Athens).

And there’s even a nice line in self-deprecation with the way in which he introduces Skarsgard’s Becker… strolling along a beach in just his swimming trunks. It’s a clear nod to Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale moment, which in itself was a subversion of the Bond girl in a bikini (true, Charmian also gets to wear the odd eye-catching one herself).

Yet, for all of the undoubted style that helps to seduce audiences, there’s a great deal of substance too. Le Carré’s source material draws heavily on Israeli-Palestinian tensions, which are ongoing today. But the notion of terrorism is also something that is all too relevant to today’s headlines. Hence, The Little Drummer Girl remains a timely piece of fiction.

As such, it commands terrific performances from just about everyone involved, with Shannon and Pugh arguably the standouts to date. If Pugh continues to display a maturity beyond her years, then Shannon is that wily veteran who can bring depth and nuance to whatever he does (whether playing a stone cold killer in The Iceman, a traumatised father in Take Shelter or an OTT superhero villain in Man of Steel). Here, he’s the grand conductor… a charismatic diplomat who enjoys the thrill of conducting, whilst being painfully (and all too personally) aware of man’s capacity for evil. He can switch moods with effortless aplomb.

With so much to recommend it, even at this early stage, The Little Drummer Girl could well rate as another of this year’s finest television programmes. It already has me hooked.