'The Little Drummer Girl': John Le Carre's only female protagonist shines in Park Chan-wook's convoluted adaptation
Florence Pugh as Charlie has outshined her already established co-stars - Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgard - in BBC One/ AMC's latest John Le Carre adaptation
Florence Pugh is one actress who makes up in charisma what she lacks in stature, and in BBC One/ AMC's second adaptation of a John Le Carre novel (the first being the Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie-starring 'The Night Manager') the upcoming actress has outshined her already established co-stars, Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon and Emmy Award-winning Alexander Skarsgard.
Starring as Charlie Ross, Pugh's relentless performance has not only done absolute justice to Le Carre's only female protagonist but has been a refreshing take on the otherwise conventionally attractive spy-ladies.
Set against the late 1970s Israel-Palestine conflict, Le Carre's story, directed by Korean visual mastermind Park Chan-wook, follows the young and aspiring actress Charlie who is bold in her execution, and strongly supports the Palestinian uprise...since that is the most "fashionable" thing to do.
Utilizing the already blurred lines between reality and fiction in Charlie's life, Mossad agents Marty Kurtz (played by Shannon) and Gadi Becker (played by Skarsgard) bring her on board where she has to pose as the lover of the now captive terrorist, Michel (or Salim) (played by Amir Khoury).
Soon realizing that she is no longer a part of the stage, but has to act her way into the real world, Charlie's acting skills are put to test, and each time the actress outwits her arbiter with her convincing performance.
Since no spy drama is ever complete without the construction of a credible lie, Charlie's finest art lies in her ability to lie. That almost immediately makes her the perfect performer for Kurtz who is hovering over the script which might eventually lead them to bring down the leader of Palestinian Liberation Organization, Khalil, who is also known to be Michel's brother.
Throughout the show, Chan-wook has presented Charlie as an actress-in-the-making, who is improvising her way through a rather convoluted script. Probably the role, therefore, was not much of a challenge for Pugh who herself is an upcoming actress, but has managed to outshine her co-stars in Chan-wook's Byzantine projection of the spy tale. Chan-wook who is best known for giving the audience some relishing visual treats has put the characters against an unsettlingly beautiful Europe. If the suspenseful paranoia in Le Carre's novel is to be read in order to be felt, then in Chan-wook's adaptation, the same paranoia needs to be seen.
One of the most basic elements that bring out the visual brilliance of the show is Chan-wook's play with chiaroscuro. Unlike most espionage films, the bright contrast of the primary colors has highlighted some of the most significant moment in the show. In the first few episodes, we see Charlie mostly clothed in flashing blue, red, green, and yellow which give her the appearance of an outsider in the war's otherwise grey background. As a contrast to her appearance, Kurtz is only seen in brown and other mute hues depicting his ambiguity. Even the difference in the color tone begins to fade as the show gradually approaches a point towards the fifth episode, when remaining neutral is no more an option for Charlie.
It is difficult to fathom after the fifth episode where her true loyalty lies, but even as an audience, we struggle to find where to place our sympathy. Morals begin to get directed in completely random directions with Charlie's introduction to Michel's people. As for the first time she begins to hear the stories of their struggles, she realizes that no one in this war is an enemy, there is only a surplus of victims. She is unable to decide where her true loyalty lies, as an outsider all she has ever done is sympathize with the war, not really understand people's ideas about the war.
With the revelation, the actress who was recruited as a spy could very well turn into a terrorist, but Charlie makes a final decision - she does not pick sides, she only does what each side has asked her to do. In that way, she remains the actress that she is, and as Khalil asked, "So you don't believe in anything?" Charlie's hidden guilt about not truly dedicating herself to anything fully comes out in the form of silence. She does not know who she is anymore, an Israeli spy of a Palestinian sympathizer? All that remains constant for her is her acting skills and her love for Gadi.
In spite of the compelling storyline, and the beautiful performances, the true star of the show (other than Pugh) most certainly is director Park Chan-wook. His ethereal depiction of foreign sceneries can sometimes be distracting, but for the good. Chan-wook's script, unlike Kurtz's script, loses its grip in the end, and it is almost dissatisfying to see how little the script developed over the course of the six episodes. However, Chan-wook makes up for it with his sensational visuals, making the show a beautiful watch. Overall, 'The Little Drummer Girl' has served less as a spy espionage, but keeping aside the argument if it is a must watch or not, the show is authentic in its story-telling and prepossessing in its perception.