When last we had a new John le Carré spy adaptation it was the very glossy star-vehicle, The Night Manager.
The Little Drummer Girl, also from BBC, adopts a far more sombre tone under South Korean director Park Chan-wook. More slow-burn than action, this is in a similar vein to Deutschland ’83 or Mindhunter.
Set in West Germany in 1979 it centres around a world of Israelis and Palestinians. A furtive Michael Shannon stars as Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz whose memory of the hostage crisis during the Munich Olympics drives his will to kill current Palestinian terrorist Khalil.
Meanwhile aspiring British actress Charlie (Florence Pugh) is thrilled when her acting troupe is whisked away to Greece by a mysterious patron. Unlike her colleagues Charlie is never afraid to speak her mind nor relent on her independent spirit.
When she meets the handsome but secretive Gadi (Alexander Skarsgård) the two spark like electrons of a battery, each waiting for the other to make the first move. But amid the alluring European locations, Charlie has no idea she is already part of a bigger three act opera.
The sum of the parts by writer Michael Lesslie makes for a complex and layered jigsaw for the viewer and in the hands of assured director Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, The Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy) and production designer Maria Djurkovic this avoids lapsing into spy tropes. Scenes filmed at Greece’s Acropolis are particularly lyrical.
“How will I ever fall in love after this?” Charlie wonders.
Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, The Commuter, Malevolent) is arresting as the actress lured to a part she did not plan to play (I had to keep reminding myself she was not Jessica Marais) while Alexander Skarsgård is dependably enticing. But it’s Michael Shannon who will win the plaudits for his character role as the determined mastermind, orchestrating a classic kill-plan.
The six part series also features Charles Dance and Condor‘s Max Irons.
While I enjoyed the sexiness of The Night Manager, The Little Drummer Girl wants to make me work harder which I suspect may ultimately be a more satisfying experience.
The Little Drummer Girl airs 8:30pm Wednesdays on BBC First.