'The Little Drummer Girl' Plays No Favorites in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

BBC and AMC's 'The Little Drummer Girl' is a stunning John le Carré adaptation that wades into the minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 1970s

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Alexander Skarsgård and Florence Pugh in "The Little Drummer Girl."
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

If you’re depressed by how poor most new network TV shows have been this fall, this is probably a good time to tell you about a show in Japan called “Shit on a Bus.”

This all-too-real reality TV show takes a group of Japanese celebrities, puts them on a bus, gives them loads of laxatives and then drives them to a fancy part of Tokyo, where they must knock on neighborhood doors and ask to use the toilet. I shit you not.

I tell you all of this to reassure you that no matter how bad you think things are, there are still worse shows out there (but feel free to get really depressed when Fox buys the remake rights and calls it “Crap on a Greyhound”).

Luckily, most discerning folk abandoned the networks long ago and sought refuge with cable TV, Netflix, etc. And the latest addition to preserve our sanity is “The Little Drummer Girl,” a co-production between Britain’s BBC and America’s AMC. The show is now airing in the United Kingdom and debuts in America on November 18.

I had the privilege of viewing the first two episodes of this John le Carré adaptation on the big screen at the London Film Festival recently. And all I can say is, wow, what a treat for the eye – and I’m not just referring to the extremely photogenic pairing of Alexander Skarsgård (Nicole Kidman’s abusive husband in “Big Little Lies”) and Florence Pugh (the British starlet who’s constantly referred to as the “next Kate Winslet”) in leading roles.

This is a story that has been told before on screen, of course, in a 1984 Hollywood version that was so bad, director George Roy Hill later admitted to Le Carré: “I fucked up your movie.”

Based on the first two episodes of the six-part adaptation, no apologies will be required second time around.

Under the assured direction of South Korea’s Park Chan-Wook (still best known for 2003’s “Oldboy,” in which a character eats a live octopus on screen – yes, it remains every bit as disgusting as it sounds), “Drummer Girl” will have you spouting words you never believed possible: “These staircases are to die for!” “I love that mustard-colored dress!” and “That Hollywood actor’s Israeli accent is quite good!”

Alexander Skarsgård as Becker in "The Little Drummer Girl."Credit: AMC / Ink Factory Film Holdings

It’s from the same production team that brought you the 2016 hit “The Night Manager.” But this Le Carré adaptation is a far more somber affair than its predecessor, which was basically villa porn, Hugh Laurie twirling a metaphorical mustache and Tom Hiddleston’s butt.

There are two key differences between the two adaptations: First, while “Manager” rattled along like a train, speedily jumping over some of the more far-fetched plot points, “Drummer” marches to a far slower beat, relishing the tradecraft and complex characters within the storyline.

Second, there is a disappointing lack of unity among rogue arms dealers, so their presence was conspicuously absent outside the BBC in a protest against their depiction in “Manager.” The Israelis and Palestinians, on the other hand…

I worked at the BBC in the early 2000s and it was quite common during tense flashpoints to see a Palestinian protest outside the corporation’s London headquarters one day, followed by an Israeli one the next – both protesting what they saw as biased coverage by the public broadcaster.

My take on this has always been that if you’re managing to offend both parties, you’re probably doing something right – and, despite the inevitable criticisms no doubt heading its way, this production after two episodes cannot be accused of favoritism (and the author went out of his way to try to portray both sides fairly in the original novel – his research even took him to see PLO leader Yasser Arafat in war-torn Beirut in 1981).

Although Le Carré wrote “Drummer Girl” a full decade before “Night Manager,” it is a more mature and ambitious story – a sprawling (661-page) tome, rich in detail and written by an author at the top of his game (and probably relishing the chance to write something that wasn’t about the Cold War).

It’s set in the late 1970s, when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was being played out across Continental Europe almost as much as the Middle East, with the added complication of German terror groups full of righteous young members, raging against their country’s refusal to confront its Nazi past. Fertile dramatic terrain, but one that still, 50 years on, is full of potential dramatic minefields.

Both book and series begin with a horrific terror bombing in Bonn, and each conjures up an almost disturbing beauty. While the novel leisurely (and wittily) describes the diplomatic quarter and the Israeli attaché’s wife “whose kibbutz upbringing had not prepared her for the rigorous luxury of diplomatic life,” the show offers a hypnotic staging of the actual blast, the moments leading up to it and its devasting effect.

Director Park has described the story as “an extremely painful, but thrilling, romance,” and he cast well in Skarsgård and Pugh as his young couple. She plays left-wing, budding thespian Charlie Ross, who meets an international man of mystery (Skarsgård) while holidaying on a Greek island and follows him to the Greek mainland (cue an absolutely stunning scene at the Acropolis, featuring a perfectly lit Parthenon by night – the first time filming has been allowed there, by all accounts).

Then, as Pugh herself told the U.K.’s Radio Times recently, her character “gets caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a little bit heartbreaking. But six episodes later, you end up in more or less the same place, with lots of people hurt.” I don’t think we need to label that a spoiler, but rather a perfect summation of the conflict itself.

It is also not much of a spoiler to say that Skarsgård’s character (whom Charlie christens “Joseph” for his “coat of many colors”) is actually an Israeli spy called Gadi Becker. He’s working for senior Israeli intelligence agent Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon), on a mission – I’d say “frantic,” but there is nothing frantic about this show – to catch Khalil (Charif Ghattas), the Palestinian mastermind behind the spate of European bombings.

If Skarsgård and Pugh provide the sparks, Shannon is the enigmatic presence at the show’s heart. With his bushy mustache and methodical mind, he’s more reminiscent of super-sleuth Hercule Poirot than any super-spy you’ve seen on screen. He’s absolutely mesmerizing and offers the audience a way into this dense story, where what is “true” and what is “staged” is constantly up for debate in this so-called Theater of the Real.

The character of Charlie was originally inspired by Le Carré’s far-left activist half-sister (and actor) Charlotte Cornwell. As the author explained in his 2016 memoir “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life,” “The task I set myself was to share the journey with her; to be swayed, as Charlie is swayed, by the arguments hurled at her by each side, and to undergo, as best I could, her contradictory surges of loyalty, hope and despair.”

Even so, the BBC may be wise to schedule a few more staff for its complaints department as this engrossing series evolves, swaying from one side to the other.

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