The Little Drummer Girl is AMC’s second limited series based on a John le Carré novel. The first, The Night Manager, was notable for three main reasons: One, it was stunning to look at; two, it was essentially an extended — and fruitless — James Bond audition for Tom Hiddleston; three, Hugh Laurie played an international arms dealer and at one point he stepped off of a bright red helicopter while wearing bright red pants, as though his character had color-coordinated his outfit and his preferred mode of air travel, which is a pretty tremendous flex that has been an inspiration to me ever since.
Like that series, The Little Drummer Girl is also notable for three main things: One, it too is very pretty to look at; two, it stars Florence Pugh, who is stealing every scene she’s in, usually from no-slouch actors like Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgård; and three, Florence Pugh is so good in The Little Drummer Girl that I’m listing it twice.
Pugh plays Charlie, a British actress who is recruited into spycraft by a team of Israeli intelligence officers led by Shannon’s Marty Kurtz. They are tracking a mysterious Palestinian named Khalil who is responsible for bombing a number of Israeli targets (or targets tied to Israel). Charlie is tasked with infiltrating Khalil’s organization after a crash course in tactics and family history from Skarsgård’s Becker. It’s all very twisty and turny and, if you’re familiar with le Carré’s work, none of this is wildly surprising, except for the part where it’s set in the Israel-Palestine conflict of the 1970s instead of the Cold War.
And the series is… pretty good. It’s pretty good! Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook directed all six episodes and they are stunning, with bright colors smashed against dull ones and frantic stretches of tense action punctuating slower stretches of tense preparation. Shannon is a cipher as Kurtz, all strategy and subterfuge and misdirection, and doing almost as much eyeglass-business as Shea Whigham in Homecoming, which will mean nothing to you if you haven’t seen both series, but is a very funny observation if you have. (You’re welcome.) Skarsgård is all simmering quiet intensity and I realized the other night that he looks kind of like if you crossed Ethan Hawke with Zach Woods, which you might not be able to unsee now. (I’m sorry.) The whole thing races toward a conclusion and is confusing and maddening and messy and fun. You could do worse in a binge-watch.
But the story here is Pugh. She’s absolutely electric whenever she’s on-screen. Charlie could very easily become a caricature, a rebellious artist who is seduced by the intrigue of espionage, a passionate activist who is pushed into danger by people who are using her, a silly young girl being led by serious men. Instead, the character is formidable and confident and strong and a little all over the place in the appropriate ways, given the situation. Most of it is in the body language and posture. She shows more with a shift in her seat or a roll of her eyes than lesser actors show with a full meal of a monologue. Some of it is skill, to be sure, but a lot of it seems like a natural charisma. Florence Pugh is a star.
It’s good she is, too, because so much is riding on her performance. She’s the lead, which is part of it, but with all the other actors delivering such reserved performances, she’s also the only one breathing life into the action. This is by design, of course, as career intelligence officials are not often known for their wild emotional swings and unpredictable personalities, but it’s the degree to which she does it that’s noteworthy. Watch her rage at Shannon’s character or stare into Skarsgård’s icy Swedish eyes. Watch her captivate a packed bar by playing pool. Watch her stare down leaders of a terror cell and fire a machine gun in the air — more like Florence PEW PEW PEW, sorryyyyy — as you start to wonder where her loyalties truly lie. Then remember that she’s only 22 and has a limited list of credits so far, most notably Lady MacBeth and Netflix’s recently released The Outlaw King. Then watch her rage at Michael Shannon again.
No one knows what the future holds, especially not me, Some Guy With A WordPress Login. Promising careers have fizzled out in a matter of months and others have taken off seemingly from nowhere. But if her performance in The Little Drummer Girl is any indication of what we can expect going forward, look for Florence Pugh to stick around for a while. And just, like, look for her, in general. There are about 10 current movie franchises that could fold her into their cast tomorrow and hopefully one of them does. I would be very much here for Keanu Reeves and her circling each other like cobras in John Wick 4. Or maybe she can focus in on prestige-y awards-type projects. Or maybe we just have her play James Bond, which would really twist the knife on the Hiddleston thing in a way I would enjoy even though I carry no ill will toward the man at all.
Again, I don’t know. All I know so far is that Florence Pugh is a star and she rules in The Little Drummer Girl and that’s enough for now.