In the first two episodes of Park Chan-wook’s The Little Drummer Girl, almost nothing is as it seems. Opening on its lead, a young English theatre actress named Charlie (Florence Pugh), auditioning for an unknown part, it’s soon made clear that what we see and hear is not to be accepted at face value. As she tells a story, images that contradict her works sporadically intrude.
No stranger to playing with perspective, Park and writer Michael Leslie hold vital information tantalisingly out of reach. From the startling act of violence that precedes the aforementioned audition, to a meeting between operatives from unnamed agencies, the first episodes elegantly weave disparate plot threads together at a quick yet measured pace, culminating in surprising, immensely satisfying ways.
Adapted from the 1983 novel by John le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl takes place across multiple countries but is primarily set in West Germany, following the efforts of a team of Mossad agents to kill a Palestinian man perpetrating bombings of Jewish targets. The show recalls Steven Spielberg’s Munich in its uncomfortable setting and premise; both question the legitimacy of the act of vengeance being undertaken by the Mossad agents, positing that the tragedy witnessed in the cold open is being used as an excuse to frame immoral, despicable acts as retribution. It’s fairly clear about this point, with one agent referring to the opening incident as “a gift”.
The Little Drummer Girl marks the acclaimed South Korean director’s first foray into big-budget television, although the BBC seems like a strange fit for Park. Thankfully, his more perverse sensibilities haven’t been dulled one bit. In one of the more unusual moments from the first two episodes, a group of Mossad agents plot something nefarious while all eating ice lollies. The show visits numerous points of political tension, sometimes approaching them with a pitch-black sense of humour.
It seems almost too good to be true that a show this bold also happens to star Michael Shannon sporting a heavy accent and glasses almost as thick as his moustache. Alexander Skarsgård, meanwhile, is his typical statuesque, quietly menacing self, and Florence Pugh brings attitude and wit to her central role. All three are adorned in bright, colourful costumes – bold greens, oranges and yellows that stand out even in splendid locations and exceptionally detailed sets.
All this is connected by inventive camerawork and editing, with elaborate shots that change perspective with gratuitous zooms and whip-pans. One standout transition connects the past and present by dissolving the frame around Pugh’s face. Though it remains to be seen where the show’s navigation of extremely sensitive politics will ultimately end up, it’s a beautiful, audacious and often hilarious thrill-ride from the get-go.