The Little Drummer Girl Episode 1 Review

Park Chan-wook’s 70s-set spy thriller is beautifully crafted, with compelling performances.

This review of The Little Drummer Girl contains spoilers.

The Little Drummer Girl Episode 1

If all new British drama has to be counter-terrorism drama (and after Bodyguard’s storming performance, this can only be the beginning), it’s well enough that the genre has variety. 

There’s not a Kevlar vest or a bank of blue-lit flat-screen monitors in The Little Drummer Girl – largely because it’s set in the 1970s so all the tech is pleasingly Eastern bloc, but also because it’s a different animal to other counter-terrorism shows: it’s arty – a spy drama for people with framed posters of foreign films and unopened bottles of wine at home. 

Period rather than modern, stylised rather than naturalistic, lofty rather than gritty… this six-part John Le Carre adaptation may take the familiar premise of a group of agents trying to bring down a terror cell, but its execution is unique. 

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That’s down to Old Boy and The Handmaiden director Park Chan-wook, who massages beauty out of thorny international politics. The Little Drummer Girl doesn’t look glossy and expensive in the way Le Carre/BBC predecessor The Night Manager, from the same production team, did. It looks, as people seem fond of saying, ‘authored’. That means desaturated backdrops and punches of colour. It means exquisitely rendered backdrops, brutalist architecture, clever framing and locations that announce themselves. It means shadow puppetry at the Acropolis, for Pete’s sake. 

Chan-wook has lent more than style to this globe-trotting spy tale, he’s also drawn in a serious leading cast. Michael Shannon (The Shape of WaterTake Shelter) plays Mossad agent Marty Kurtz, an Israeli spy determined to bring down his own white whale in terrorist Khalil, the leader of a Palestinian terror cell that’s been targeting Israeli schools, supermarkets and homes. 

Shannon’s performance is characteristically larger-than-life. His Kurtz is confident, solemn and wise, yet prone to dramatic flourish, from the moustache to the accent to the dialogue. “We’re off to the races!” he shouts when a lead pays off, thrilled by the chase. When Kurtz screams comically bloody murder in a padded room he’s ostensibly testing its sound-proofing, but it could equally have been a clause in Shannon’s contract. 

Alexander Skarsgard (True BloodBig Little Lies) has less fun in episode one, despite getting the jollier side of the job sunning himself on a Greek island while the rest of the team carry out surveillance on the bombing suspects. Skarsgard plays Peter (or Jose/Joseph/Becker – these are spies, names are pulled on and off like pairs of socks), an aloof agent tasked with recruiting a new kind of spy. 

That’s where rising star Florence Pugh (Lady MacbethThe Falling) comes in. She’s terrific as Charlie (Charmian – already at it with the names), a young actor with progressive politics and an eidetic memory, she’s just the thing for Kurtz’ new plan. The enemy has been recruiting young Western women to use as accomplices in the cell’s attacks, so Kurtz is planning to mould his own specimen to infiltrate the cell: Charlie.  

None of this has been explained to her in episode one, which sees Charlie’s theater troup spirited away to Greece by a mysterious patron as, unbeknownst to her, she’s groomed for the job. Spiky, suspicious and quick, Charlie’s clearly the perfect candidate. In the episode’s gripping final moments, she’s driven by Peter at breakneck speed to headquarters where she meets Kurtz and the rest of the gang.  

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Alongside the action and style, The Little Drummer Girl also has its sights on a theme: spies as actors, life as a performance. (Blessedly, nobody goes as far as reciting As You Like It’s “All the world’s a stage” speech, but the play is made a plot point.) The dialogue isn’t always subtle, and, true to the genre, nor is it free of the odd clunk and thud. Greeting Charlie, Kurtz explains, “I am the producer, writer and director of our little show and I would like to talk to you about your part.”

Is she being offered the role of a lifetime, or are the spies merely tying her to a stake and piling up the flammable materials around her feet? There’s more than enough in this beautifully crafted drama to bring us back to find out.