[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Early on in “The Little Drummer Girl,” you’re asked to believe that someone with a lot to lose ends up being swayed by Charlie’s voice alone. Pair that with her audition at the story’s outset, and the actress playing Charlie has to be expert in making an immediate impression, if the series around her is going to hold together.
Fortunately for “The Little Drummer Girl,” Charlie ended up being played by Florence Pugh. There are many reasons to celebrate Park Chan Wook’s adaptation of the John le Carré novel (and to question why it didn’t become a sensation on the level of so many other limited series word-of-mouth hits then and since). Park’s eye for detail and instincts for focusing the audience’s attention are a perfect match for the legendary author’s tradecraft bread crumbs (laid out deftly here by screenwriters Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson). It’s an eye-popping marvel, dotted by bold colors in every hue of the rainbow and then some.
Much like the operation headed up by the enigmatic Kurtz (Michael Shannon) and bolstered by an even more difficult-to-parse Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), the six-part season doesn’t work without the right person in the role at the center of their plan. One of the first times that Charlie is introduced, apart from that audition, posits her in the middle of a pool hall brawl. Even though she’s giving up about a foot each to each fellow near blows, she shouts them down with relative ease. There’s a supreme sense of confidence and a heavy dose of fearlessness to Charlie, something that Pugh gets across in nearly every scene she’s in.
As Charlie gets recruited for her dangerous assignment, Pugh lets through enough to show that this actress, playing small fringe London venues, would be taken with the idea of performing for an entirely new kind of audience. Marty can’t help but sneak a tiny grin as he zeroes in on that sense of ambition, dangling the opportunity in front of Charlie and knowing she’s inclined to take it. The further that Charlie gets into her new assumed identity, the more Pugh can play with how much danger Charlie chooses to acknowledge in the process.
The fact that Charlie is an actress effectively playing another person entirely could lead to a point where the character gets lost in the shuffle. (“Losing Alice” is another recent show that tackles such a problem directly, with the help of some expert lead performances.) But with Pugh in control over what details belong to Charlie and which belong to the someone else she claims to be, “The Little Drummer Girl” can live in that grey area without feeling muddled.
Pugh also plays Charlie’s perceptiveness in a way that gives Park even freer reign to toy with the audience’s point of view. When you have a story built around characters like her, Kurtz, and Becker — people who stay alive by being able to cut through the layers wrapped around the truth — the grand, precise camera moves don’t feel as ostentatious. It’s just another way that someone inside this web is working through the distractions.
In hindsight, this is an ideal calling card performance for Pugh because it’s a masterful juggling of tone, too. Charlie isn’t just asserting herself in these situations by showing nerves of steel. She’s setting her psychological opponents on their back foot by disarming them in different ways. Sizing up Gadi during her theater troupe’s Greece trip, she dismisses him with a chuckle. When she emphatically blows out a lighter multiple times in order to avoid setting off some packed explosives, Pugh manages to wriggle in a sliver of Looney Tunes energy in the process. One memorable cut to Charlie singing along to a Croatian rock song shows that this character has still managed to retain some carefree energy, even as the men she’s working for seem intent to snuff it out.
There’s holding your own with scene partners and there’s doing the same with some pretty majestic surroundings. The first episode’s closing sequence in front of a moonlit Acropolis is right up there with Park’s best work. Charlie might be enchanted by the display, but she’s certainly not overcome by it. If you ever wondered how Florence Pugh has been able to snatch entire $200 million blockbusters out from under sizable competition, this is a great place to start.