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‘Little Drummer Girl’ is a slow climb to thrilling heights

November 18, 2018

‘Little Drummer Girl’ is a slow climb to thrilling heights

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- “The Little Drummer Girl,” a six-part adaptation of the 1983 spy novel by John le Carre, sure takes a while to get rolling, but, when it does, this miniseries delivers the goods in spectacular fashion.

Yes, indeed, some patience is required with this complex, slow-burn espionage tale. The entire first hour is little more than exposition and setup. Come to think of it, a good deal of the second hour is loaded with exposition and setup, as well.

Both of those episodes air Monday, Nov. 19, starting at 9 p.m. on AMC.

The pace is so deliberate and plodding in the early going, you wish you could cue someone to pick up the beat for “The Little Drummer Girl.” It almost feels as if director Chan-wook Park (“Stoker,” “Old Boy,” “The Handmaiden”) is draining the thrills from what’s supposed to be a thriller. You’re beginning to suspect that le Carre’s suspenseful espionage tale is losing something in the translation to another medium.

But then Park, making his TV debut as a director, expertly builds on that methodically constructed foundation of exposition, climbing to breathtaking heights from which his gifted star, Florence Pugh (“Lady Macbeth”), can soar her way toward a near-certain Emmy nomination. This is quite a showcase role for Pugh, and she makes the most of it.

She plays Charmian “Charlie” Ross, a gifted and outspoken young actress working with a ragtag theater troupe in 1970s London. She has been known to make statements in support of the Palestinian cause, and that has helped put Charlie in the spotlight for an Israeli spy team looking for a good actress to go undercover.

The theater company gets an offer to stage a charity performance in Greece, which, pretty much sounds like escaping London for a fully financed holiday in the sun. It’s really just an excuse for Charlie to have a close encounter with the enigmatic and brooding Becker (Alexander Skarsgard), who isn’t a bad actor, either.

At the point that Charlie believes she might be falling in love with the intriguing Becker, she learns he is an agent whose mission is to deliver her into the hands of Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz (flamboyantly played with thick glasses and thick accent by Michael Shannon). She also learns the trip to Greece wasn’t about acting on stage but auditioning for a far more challenging (and dangerous) role.

Kurtz wants Charlie, posing as a political sympathizer, to infiltrate a terrorist group murdering Jewish civilians. He is shadowing a notorious bomber, but his goal is take down the entire cell.

In addition to patience, “The Little Drummer Girl” demands strict attention to detail. The limited series takes for granted that anyone wanting to indulge in this kind of international chess match will be happy to put in a little intellectual work along the twisting way.

So, be warned yet again. Although visually stylish and stunning in a way you’d expect from Park, “The Little Drummer Girl” is not for the casual viewer seeking a blockbuster spy-vs.-spy thrill ride. It isn’t that kind of adventure.

That’s not to say a more pow-wham approach is impossible with le Carre, the British author whose acclaimed works include “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Smiley’s People” and “The Russian House.” In fact, AMC’s last miniseries based on a le Carre novel, “The Night Manger,” starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, had a far more high-octane take on the world of intrigue and espionage.

But “The Little Drummer Girl” is very much its own story with its own mood and strengths and, absolutely, rewards. While Pugh, Skarsgard and Shannon hit vastly different emotional notes, each finds the shadings and conflicts that make these characters more and more compelling as the plot gets thicker, the players dig deeper and the stakes get higher.

It is, Pugh, however, who makes the grandest impression in what is both a star and star-making turn. You might find yourself quibbling with some of Park’s direction, but never with Pugh’s performance. Kurtz and Park needed precisely the same thing to attempt their missions: a terrific actress. Mission accomplished.

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