JOHN Le Carre is the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell, a British author best known for his espionage novels. We first became aware of him with “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, his third novel set at the height of the Cold War.
It was a worldwide hit and also became an acclaimed blockbuster movie starring Richard Burton in 1963. Because of the huge success of this, he resigned from his work at the Secret Intelligence Service and became a full-time writer.
He’s very prolific and now at 88, still active. His last published work was “Agent Running in the Field” late last year. His best known works include “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, “Smiley’s People”, “The Constant Gardener” and “The Little Drummer Girl”. The last novel was first made into a movie in 1984 starring Dianne Keaton in the title role. It’s now remade into a mini-series by AMC starring young British actress Florence Pugh.
As a writer of spy novels, Le Carre does not rely on big action sequences with plenty of gunfights. He instead dwells on the mental distress and emotional toll a spy pays for participating in covert operations and its morally complex world. This is clearly reflected in “Little Drummer Girl”, which has a labyrinthine plot and uses the Middle East conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It’s directed with style and substance by Park Chan Wook, who did the Korean hit “Old Boy”.
Set in 1979, a young British actress, Charmian or Charlie (Florence Pugh), who is also an idealistic left wing activist, is seduced to be part of a clandestine operation. The objective is to arrest a Palestinian terrorist bomber called Khalil (Charif Ghattas), whose campaign of terror had already killed several people, including an innocent 8-year old boy in West Germany.
Senior Mossad agent Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) is tasked to hunt Khalil. His team then abducts Khalil’s younger brother, Salim (Amir Khoury), who recruits young Western women to deliver bombs to their intended targets.
Charlie is in Greece with her theater troupe when she meets an enigmatic hunk, Joseph (Alexander Skarsgard), who asks her to join him in going around Greece. He takes her to the ruins of the Parthenon at the Acropolis (breathakingly beautiful) and then introduces her to his Israeli team led by Kurtz.
Joseph turns out to be Gadi Becker, an Israeli freedom fighter and Mossad agent who explains to her how she can help them catch Khalil by pretending to be Salim’s girlfriend. She turns it down initially but eventually agrees to infiltrate the terrorists as she’s obviously attracted to Gadi.
The reticent agent then becomes her mentor and trains her, pretending to be Salim, and teaches her everything about Salim and his girlfriend’s background. Her ultimate mission turns out to be bombing a liberal Israeli academic called Prof. Minkel who is visiting London.
In telling the story, Park Chan Wook interweaves reality with the make-believe elements in the story using seamless cinematography and clever editing that moves the story back and forth in time. Complicating it is the tentative relationship between Charlie and Gadi, which is not a conventional romance but is tentative and marked with obscurantism due to their changing perceptions of themselves and also each other. Charlie is not even sure if the feeling between them is mutual.
Shannon and Skarsgard are both effective in their respective roles as Kurtz and Gadi, specially Skarsgard with his restrained and sad, puppy dog projection, but there’s no doubt that what holds the film together persuasively is the totally believable portrayal of Florence Pugh as the formidably intricate title role character. She’s a bit plump, but what she lacks in height, she more than makes up for in her dynamic screen presence and volatile performance.
She also looks quite gorgeous in the many scenes of deshabille that she is made to do in the course of the show. Hers is an expertly nuanced performance as an actress-turned-spy, making it a real flesh and blood character. This is evident from the first scene when we see her playing St. Joan of Arc on stage up to the thrilling climax where her play acting has been discovered, because of batteries on the radio in her handbag, and her life is clearly in peril. Her performance alone makes this 6-episode mini series worth watching.