What is the value of a really good liar? In AMC’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s upcoming limited series adapted from British author John le Carré’s 1983 novel, a young actress lies to save lives. Recruited by Israeli spies, Charlie (Florence Pugh) uses her artistic talents to help them infiltrate and eradicate a Palestinian terrorist cell. Can she play a bad person without becoming one? Can she justify lying, again and again, in pursuit of the greater good?
Most of these ideas aren’t unique to the spy genre, let alone le Carré’s oeuvre, but Chan-wook infuses a bit of fun and a lot of beauty into the ’70s thriller, elevating it above AMC’s last le Carré adaptation, “The Night Manager.” His game cast makes each of the six episodes all the better, including an aptly lived-in turn from Pugh and one hell of a blustery accent from Michael Shannon, while European vistas burst with vibrancy and detail.
Let’s go back to that accent for a second. While Charlie is the show’s lead and anchor for the audience, it’s Shannon’s mysterious Israeli commander who drives the action. Kurtz is an Israeli officer who’s as bespectacled and mustachioed as one would hope from a ’70s authority figure. After a string of terrorist attacks by a small insurgency, Kurtz (who goes by Marty to some) spends the premiere episode assembling a small team of spies to track them down, masquerade as allies, and bring down the larger threat to Israel.
Meanwhile, an unknown man is doing a bit of recruiting himself. After attending one of Charlie’s plays in London, “Peter” (Alexander Skarsgård) ends up on the same beach as her theater troupe in Greece. Though reserved and kind of rude, his presence is enough of an attraction to see why the group slowly invites him into their circle. Charlie remains suspicious, and even accuses him of being a con artist out to steal their traveler’s checks. But another friend interrupts, and says he’s clearly an actor.
As an actor and a man of certain appeal, Skarsgård is well suited for the part of an ominous chameleon. He can be intimidating and alluring, depending on who’s looking at him — and everyone is looking at him. (See the above photo if you don’t already know why.) It’s easy to see why Charlie is either slapping him in the face or lunging her face into his. They form a push-and-pull pairing that provokes and rewards in equal measure. When she’s infuriated, the audience understands why; when he puts his walls up, viewers get just enough of a peek behind the facade to respect his choice.
Writers Michael Lesslie (“Macbeth”) and Claire Wilson (“Partners in Crime”) carefully dole out information, but the series finds curious ways to acknowledge its own narrative. “The Little Drummer Girl” focuses on actors telling a story about actors, so it’s only fitting how scenes will suddenly pause and rewind, or one character’s recorded speech will play as another character mouths the words. Interrogation scenes blend with auditions and lies contort into performance, all to remind viewers the spies tell stories to their prey just as filmmakers tell a story to their audience. It’s a playful approach that helps keep Chan-wook from becoming an unreliable narrator; he wants viewers to be aware he’s telling the story, and trust you’ll learn what’s needed when he feels it’s necessary.
The director’s excitement crosses over for the audience. Like many of le Carré’s other international relations studies, “The Little Drummer Girl” can be as burdened by specifics; however, this limited series finds inventive and eye-catching ways to convey its spycraft. Despite all the lies, games, performances, and plays, these characters have an authenticity that guts you. Charlie is exposed, in more ways than one, and left raw. Peter’s silence is soon revealed to be as meaningful as anything else; his demeanor is a thinly veiled guise for his true feelings. And Kurtz, with each whispered chuckle and bellowing command, proves to be an Ahab-like fanatic who’s cautious in tipping his true feelings, even in private. Every last one of them is also a damn good liar, so even if “The Little Drummer Girl” is a devious trap, it’s one worth falling for.
“The Little Drummer Girl” premieres Sunday, November 19 at 9 p.m. on AMC. The six-hour limited series will air in two-hour installments on consecutive nights between November 19 and 21.