Little Drummer Girl: a slow-burn of intrigue and cold thrills to come
Review: Florence Pugh mesmerises in this adaptation of a John le Carré spy story – and Alexander Skarsgard is not too shabby either
Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard in The Little Drummer Girl. Photograph: Jonathan Olley/BBC/The Little Drummer Girl Distribution Ltd
Whatever came next for The Ink Factory – the production studio behind Hotel Artemis, A Most Wanted Man and, most notably, The Night Manager – was always going to elicit a bit of buzz. That their latest offering, The Little Drummer Girl (BBC 1, Sunday, 9pm), is an adaptation of another John le Carré novel seems like wildly good fortune for spy drama fans.
It has already been a plum year for the genre – Killing Eve, The Bodyguard, Collateral – and various world events, among them political uncertainty and security issues, have injected the genre with a fresh relevance (The Ink Factory is reportedly next turning its attention to another Le Carré classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold).
Whatever about timing and prescience, spy dramas have always inherently made for compelling TV: double-crossing characters, suspenseful plots, clues drip-fed in tantalising sips, the slow, mysterious burn of the cat and mouse chase. And so it goes with The Little Drummer Girl, now happily ensconced in the Sunday night slot where The Cry and The Bodyguard formerly had pride of place.
It should come as little surprise that it looks every bit as sumptuous, moneyed and shadowy as some of its on-screen forebears. Attention to period detail – the drama is set in 1979 – does a lot of the spadework, but there’s plenty of heft in the cast, too. Michael Shannon, compelling in just about everything he does, plays a senior Israeli intelligence agent Martin Kurtz parachuted in to investigate the bombing of a Jewish attaché’s residence in Bonn (sure enough, the first episode starts with the prerequisite bang, though there’s something sinister about the perpetrator – a “flimsy Swedish outcast from Bader-Meinhof” – watching her assignment unfold with childlike glee from a nearby car). Kurtz believes that Khali (Charif Ghattas), a Palestinian revolutionary, is behind the recent spate of anti-Semitic bombings. So far, so boilerplate, with an aesthetic and tone that’s compelling, albeit entirely familiar.
Proving an interesting textural contrast to glacial, austere Germany is the parallel story of spirited London-based actress Charlie – a mesmerising Florence Pugh, likely destined for much chatter about “a breakthrough role” after this week.
Charlie and her drama troupe are sent to Greece on a “corporate charity rehearsal jaunt” thanks to a mystery patron. She soon encounters Joseph (Alexander Skarsgard) – so named for his “coat of many colours” – who is equal parts inscrutable, dashing and scarred. The two become tentatively, romantically entangled when she follows him from the sun-drenched Greek islands to Athens (“How will I ever fall in love after this?” she asks him, maybe not unreasonably). Things take a turn when he whisks her away in his car with nary a care for speed limits and the like. And soon we realise why he has been so damned inscrutable: “The good news is I’ve lied to you as little as possible,” he exhales as they speed toward her new fate; a new acting gig, if you will. Welp.
All told, the first episode is a molasses-slow burn, with a welcome change of pace about five minutes from the end. Rather than deliver any jumpy, grisly moments, it’s an episode designed to set the scene for the rest of the series and knit Charlie and Kurtz together. It’s a portent of promise, intrigue and cold thrills to come. Between Pugh’s wisecracking Charlie and Skarsgard’s brooding Joseph– the fulcrum of the series, it would appear – viewers appear to be very much in safe hands. Well, ish.