Reviews of the Little Drummer Girl episodes 1-6 for the Jewish Chronicle

Reviews of the Little Drummer Girl episodes 1-6 for the Jewish Chronicle

Episode 1

If there is an overriding impression to take away from John le Carre’s epic thriller The Little Drummer Girl, it is the dismal whiff of cigarettes and failure.

The Le Carre novel, published in 1983, was set in 1979. And anyone who lived through the 70s will remember the decade for one thing — it was brown.

Yes, the 1970s, the era that style forgot, was brown. Luggage was brown, shirts were brown, jackets, coats and shoes, and even furniture. All was brown and depressing and the director of this new TV version, Korea’s Park Chan-Wook, has done a bang-up job in reminding viewers of the sheer vile brown-ness of the time.

As with last year’s Le Carre hit, The Night Manager, there is a fair amount of flashing around between exotic locations, but whereas The Night Manager was set in the present day and thus full of heady technology, Drummer Girl is a spy thriller without so much as a mobile phone to its name.

Instead Martin Kurtz, our Israeli spymaster, (Michael Shannon, clad from head to foot in, yes, brown) has to assemble a ramshackle Mossad team with a variety of skills which do not depend on computers. His mission is to catch a Palestinian terrorist, Khalil, who is busily killing Jews in Europe.

Khalil has just wiped out an Israeli family in Bad Godesburg, in the diplomatic quarter of Bonn, West Germany, and we first meet Kurtz when he goes in to debrief the Israeli survivor.

Khalil, we learn, is one of four Palestinian brothers, and Kurtz’s big idea is to recruit a young and desirable non-Jewish girl (Florence Pugh, who plays Charlie) as bait to attract the youngest brother, Salim — and thus provide the Israelis with leverage over Khalil the bomber. Khalil seems quite keen on using young women as lures, too — it was the 1970s, after all — but I do wish the women had looked a bit different from each other, since I spent considerable time mistaking one honey-trapper for Charlie. And there is a lot of attention paid to watches. By their timepieces shall ye know our Israelis, and our Palestinians, and our dupes.

Charlie — based on Le Carre’s own actress half-sister, Charlotte Cornwell — is a 22-year-old playing St Joan in half-empty London fringe theatres. Bizarrely, nobody in her theatre company questions the identity of the generous “donor” who pays for the entire troupe to go to Greece, ostensibly to rehearse their next production, but more probably to spend a hedonistic time on Naxos beach.

But Charlie, full of radical politics like most 22-year-olds, is being set up from afar by Martin Kurtz. He is a Holocaust survivor, as he tells a West German police chief, and that means he has scores to settle.

So, as the camera pans over a dark office in Mossad HQ in Tel Aviv, in which state-of-the-art daisywheel typewriters sit in serried ranks next to a group of coloured dial telephones — I said this was a tech-free series — we learn of Kurtz’s plan. He has an Israeli spy in the field, Becker, played by Alexander Skarsgard, and an understandably confused Charlie will be asked to act falling in love with the Palestinian Salim — while in fact falling for the dark and brooding Becker.

There is a fairly scary car scenario at the end of the episode in which a terrified Charlie is screaming for her driver to slow down, and I was screaming at the pair of them to put seatbelts on. Then I remembered that seatbelts weren’t compulsory wear until 1983.

Charlie, by the way, is wearing a yellow dress in this scene, presumably on the grounds that if she threw up on brown, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

Episode 2

The opening episode of The Little Drummer Girl was a sea of dismal brown. But this week’s was a sea of glorious primary colour, reflected mainly in Charlie’s costumes and the beautiful Mediterranean light of the Mossad’s temporary headquarters in Greece — or is it?.

In this episode viewers learn for the first time the long game being played by Israeli spy leader Martin Kurtz, (Michael Shannon), in his attempt to put a stop to the deadly bombings being carried out by the Palestinian Khalil against Jewish targets in Europe.

He and his team — fronted by the charismatic Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard), have decided to recruit Charlie — Charmian Ross, a radically “woke” actress with a slew of right-on political opinions — as their weapon against Khalil.

Charlie, wonderfully played by Florence Pugh, is like an onion with layers as we see her “acting” in response to tough questioning by her Israeli team of kidnappers in Greece. “We are friends, non-sectarian, non-aligned friends”, bluffs Kurtz as the recruiting process for the part of a lifetime begins.

He appeals to her vanity and breaks down her defences almost simultaneously. She has a story about her life: the Israelis expose it, brutally, as a lie and a fantasy which she has constructed to present herself to the outside world.

“What’s my character?” demands Charlie as she decides whether to go on this roller-coaster adventure. “Terrorist”, Kurtz tells her, bluntly.

So, should she stay or should she go? At first she laughs: “I’ve been kidnapped by an experimental theatre company!” Then she realises that this is going to be a part which will require acting of a higher order than she has been used to — and the lies and the deception are equal between Charlie and Kurtz’s Mossad team.

For on the other side of the villa where they are briefing Charlie, the Israelis have stashed Salim, the younger brother of Khalil the bomber. And in a claustrophobic makeshift cell, Kurtz’s team attempt to shake the truth out of Salim as to what his brother’s deadly intentions are.

Gadi is briefing Charlie to within an inch of her life, pretending he is Salim and mouthing the slogans of disaffected Palestinians with a degree of conviction so that it is hard to tell who is acting and who is not. Charlie demands honesty from Becker: but at this stage, almost every word out of his mouth, including “and” and “but”, is a lie.

My favourite character this week was the enigmatic member of the Mossad team, Miss Bach, (Claire Holman) who is charged with duping Salim and getting him to divulge his brother’s target. She is sweetly supportive while feeding him drugged fruit — but he may just be having the last laugh,

And for technophiles — we are back in the 1970s, after all — it was entertaining to see a fax machine, a UHER reel-to-reel tape recorder, and a top-of-the-range cassette machine. I can’t begin to imagine where director Park Chan-wook found this stuff.

Episode 3

Charlie, the mistress of dissimulation, is having a fine old time belting down European motorways on her way to Salzburg on her first mission for Marty Kurtz’s motley Mossad crew. I nearly wrote “bombing down the motorways”, but in view of the car’s contents, that might not be terribly appropriate.

Marty might be the puppet-master of the Israeli team, but not everybody’s strings are pulling in the same direction. Gadi, for example, is not keen to take direction from Marty and often appears to run roughshod through his leader’s instructions. Shimon, Marty’s over-eager disciple, gets responsibility and then doesn’t know what to do with it.

Still, Charlie — beautifully played by Florence Pugh — is having a high old time. Gadi, having prepped her to within an inch of her life about the attitudes and responses of the Palestinian, Salim, with whom she is ordered to fall in love, makes sure she is well prepared for her long drive to Salzburg. Into her eager paws he counts out wads of currency, Austrian, Yugoslavian, Greek and German. One day, Charlie, there will be no need for this, although with Brexit on the horizon you just never know.

From Charlie’s point of view — and, indeed, from the viewer’s — it is difficult to know when Gadi (Alexander Skarsgard) is being Gadi and when he is being Salim. Sometimes he reaches out and caresses her, but is that his Palestinian alter ego, or his real Israeli identity?

Meanwhile, back at Mossad’s HQ for the duration of this operation, Marty decides it’s time to shake the truth out of Salim. Marty (a fabulously grizzled Michael Shannon) believes in showing Salim the nuts and bolts behind his capture. He knows Salim (Amir Khoury) has misdirected the team to Salzburg, but he needs to know where Charlie and her deadly cargo should really be going.

Salim coughs up. And in the days before mobile phones, we are left wondering just how the change of destination is to be communicated to Charlie.

In a delicious little scene Charlie and Rachel (Simona Brown) meet “unexpectedly” at the reception desk of a Yugoslav hotel where Charlie is checking in for the night. And what could be more “natural” than two friends sitting down in the lobby for an enjoyable game of Scrabble? So nothing is written down to incriminate, but the correct information is spelled out and received.

So Charlie arrives in Kleinalm, the true destination, where we even see a glimpse of John le Carre playing an elderly waiter. And in due course the car is driven off by members of the Palestinian cell who are working for Khalil, the mastermind of the terrorist bombers.

And here is our old acquaintance from Episode One, the screaming psychopath Anna (Iben Akerlie), who, when caught by the Israelis — let us say, does not go quietly.

Charlie, meanwhile, is thrilled at the success of her first operation. “I enjoyed it, I loved it. Is that what happens, it gets addictive?” she crows to Gadi. But Gadi, who is being Israeli now, loses patience with Charlie’s right-on politics and her attitude to the Middle East. “Being naive doesn’t absolve you,” he snarls, dragging her out of the apartment to read a plaque outside. And suddenly, the penny drops as to where the team is holed up — and why.

“Terror is theatre”, Salim tells his eager acolytes, Charlie among them, at a consciousness-raising event for Palestinians back in the UK. By the episode’s end one can only agree. Shiver…

Episode 4

Last week, on the BBC’s Sunday night spy thriller, Marty Kurtz’s ragbag Mossad team dispatched two members of the Palestinian terror cell who had committed the Bad Godesburg atrocity which opened the series. Salim and his ear-chewing accomplice, Anna, were forced into a car which then burst into a ball of flame, a neat way for the West German police chief (and passionate foodie) to tie up the loose ends of the Bad Godesburg attack.

By the time we catch up with Kurtz’s crew in London, they are still looking shell-shocked from the operation — evidently, despite the hissing slogans about Zionists, not the kind of thing they have to do every day.

Shimon has taken refuge in elaborate piano practice while Charlie, (Florence Pugh) sulky and petulant, kicks her heels in Somerset while Gadi tells her what comes next.

She is in Somerset for a theatre performance — yes, she still has some sort of day job — which requires the cast to live in a makeshift caravan camp. Even the fairly dopey other actors figure out that Charlie is not exactly concentrating; boy, they should only know what she is focusing on.

Gadi (Alexander Skarsgard) once again assuming the persona of Salim the Palestinian, reappears to brief Charlie. He’s sorry not to have been there earlier, he tells her. “That’s ok”, she scoffs, “I’m a woman, I’m used to men pissing me about”.

But all her careful insouciance evaporates when Gadi — as Salim — describes cherished Palestinian stories of oppression by Israel, from Deir Yassin to 1967 and beyond.

He tells the stories with such conviction that it is hard for anyone not to express sympathy with the Palestinian cause. I am waiting with interest for Israel’s stories to be relayed in similar fashion, but perhaps Le Carre would respond that it is a Mossad team which is driving the action — supposedly answer enough in itself.

It’s time, however, for Charlie to be put through her paces by members of Khalil’s European cell, Helga and Anton. Anton looks… familiar, somehow. He’s wearing a battered trench coat and almost certainly brown clothing underneath. Who does he remind us of? Why, none other than Marty, a point underlined by director Park Chan-wook when he later frames Marty (Michael Shannon) against a photograph of Anton Mesterbein (Jeff Willbusch). It is a remarkable and creepy resemblance, and the casting director is to be commended.

Gadi, by now, is getting himself in a right old lather about Charlie, the hook whom he has baited. When she is first confronted by Helga and Anton, and things threaten to get really nasty — where is that damned 50p in the electricity meter when you need it ?— Gadi is ready to send a rescue team in, in a heartbeat.

And when Marty offers him the chance to pull Charlie out of the whole operation, insisting “Her survival depends on her ignorance”, Gadi is unhappy. “Do something!” commands Marty, knowing he can rely on Gadi to persuade Charlie to stay on track. And, er, Gadi does something. Quite a lot of something, in fact.

But now, as Le Carre puts it, “fiction and reality become one”, as Charlie is taken to Beirut for a fateful meeting with the Palestinians. Gadi is concerned. “They will send her back to us — as one of us, or one of them?” He’d just better hope they don’t tumble to the truth and send her back in several pieces. Charlie, not to mention the rather fabulous Pugh, is going to need the acting skills of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith combined. The Middle East version, of course.

Episode 5

I’m not altogether sure why the young English actress Charlie (Florence Pugh) is called the little drummer girl — the title of John Le Carre’s slow-burning Sunday night spy thriller — unless we are meant to think of her as one of those wind-up toys, ready for manipulation by both sides.

We last saw Charlie — supposedly the lover of Salim the Palestinian — coming face-to-face with his fairly scary sister, Fatmeh, (Lubna Azabal) after being bundled into the boot of a car in Beirut.

Now we are plainly approaching the end-game, as Charlie, having given Fatmeh enough details about Salim to convince her that she is a bona fide recruit to the Palestinian revolution, ends up spending a month in a Palestinian training camp in the Lebanese mountains.

“You are here to become a weapon of the Palestinian cause”, says one of the camp leaders to the raggle-taggle group of foreign volunteers. And, you know, it’s really not a nice place. Besides the primitive conditions and people screaming orders all day long, there’s a list of rules as long as your arm about no privacy, and no intimacy. Certainly no-one trusts anyone else.

Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard), Charlie’’s Israeli handler/lover, has warned her that things are going to get up close and personal between her and the Palestinians. They will treat her like family, he tells her, and “you will be ashamed of deceiving them”. She might even be tempted to tell them the truth, he says, but that would be a Really Bad Idea. Because she will definitely be tortured and killed.

So while Charlie laboriously turns into a pocket revolutionary, even wearing a freshly ironed martyr’s t-shirt bearing Salim’s face — how handy to have a whole heap of iron-on-transfers, Fatmeh — the Mossad team, with an increasingly morose Gadi and Marty (Michael Shannon), kick about in London, trying to figure out what Khalil, the Palestinian mastermind who is brother to Salim and Fatmeh, will do next.

There is a lot of nigh impenetrable by-play with postcards and fake drops in postboxes, while the Israelis spend hours deciphering the Palestinian cell’s code. Finally, they think, they have it figured out.

Time for a visit, given that they are in London, to British intelligence chief Commander Picton, a truly vulpine performance from Charles Dance, who does just about everything except flourish his cape a la “Maria Marten and the Murder in the Red Barn”. He pretty much does actually twirl his moustache, though, telling Marty that he admires the Israeli’s own hirsute upper lip.

Marty and the team reckon there’s going to be some sort of an attack in London. To Marty’s evident horror, the commander — who has served in mandate Palestine and isn’t, shall we say, a great fan of Israel — appears to know all about Charlie, the “English bird” who has been spotted by British intelligence driving suspect cars across European borders. And he knows all about the “roasted” Palestinian, who died in an Israeli-devised fireball.

Picton makes it clear to Marty how unimpressed he is with Mossad tactics. “It’s one thing”, he snarls, “to piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Quite another to take a bloody great shit all over me without the courtesy of a weather report”. The British, he preens, invented just this kind of undercover operation during the war — Operation Mincemeat, wherein a corpse was stuffed with misleading information. Ironic, really, that in real life, Mincemeat was the idea of a British Jewish intelligence officer, Ewen Montagu.

Playing the role of her life, Charlie is brought back to London by the Palestinians. And nobody — probably not even Charlie herself — knows which way she is going to jump.

Episode 6

The central question in The Little Drummer Girl has surely been, how far will she go?

The drummer girl in question, of course, being Charmiane Ross, otherwise known as Charlie, delivered in a knock-out performance for the past six weeks by the remarkable Florence Pugh.

Every time we think Charlie is caught like a fly in someone else’s spiderweb, she manages to astonish both us, as viewers, and her Israeli and Palestinian handlers.

On reflection, there was no good time for the BBC to have screened this potent representation of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Even though Drummer Girl is nominally set in 1979 (and written in 1983), the sad and desperate truth is that there is always bound to be some sort of action between the two sides to act as a mirror to today. Who knows how many Charlies are currently behind the scenes?

In this last episode, Charlie is put to the test and asked to place a bomb — shades of recent episodes of Bodyguard — in a briefcase belonging to an Israeli lecturer from the peace camp, speaking at a London venue.

Inevitably this means the reappearance of Charles Dance as the British intelligence leader, Commander Picton, brandishing an umbrella and antisemitism in almost equal parts. He tells Israeli Marty Kurtz (Michael Shannon) how much he dislikes “your kind” and when Marty picks him up on it, responds: “No-one lies with a smile on their face like you lot”. It is all Marty — and we — can do not to hit him.

By this time Marty knows that Khalil, the Palestinian master-bomber, is in London pulling Charlie’s strings. Marty has a long game planned for Khalil who, he says later, “is not going to be a terrorist for ever”. And one is inexorably reminded of Begin and Shamir, Israeli leaders despised by Britain as terrorists until obliged to deal with them as politicians. Speaking to Picton, Marty says bitterly: “Britain always has the solution to other countries’ problems”, and I think that probably remains the case.

Park Chan-wook, the series director, appears to have combed the world for brutalist architecture in which to frame his protagonists. Charlie and her lover/handler, Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard), spend forever running up and down horrible concrete stairwells or, when in the countryside, through hideous forests full of trees that have given up on the growing thing.

Gadi, of course, has no means of measuring just how close Charlie has got to Khalil — even though he asks her to do just that. In this nail-biting finale, Gadi both pushes Charlie to be intimate with Khalil — but can’t stand it if she is going to take him at his word.

Khalil (Charif Ghattas), whose dialogue, I regret to say, appears to have come straight out of Kahlil Gibran’s awful The Prophet, spends much time gazing into the middle distance and uttering gnomic phrases. But both he and Gadi have one thing in common: just before each asks Charlie to do something life-changing, they say “You don’t have to do this, Charlie”, which basically means that of course she goes ahead and does it.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you that it all ends in tears, more or less. And the Israeli crew begin to enact a bloody vengeance which may well be Le Carre’s way of illustrating the payback for the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972.

I leave the — almost — last word to Gadi, who tells Charlie “one question at a time”, their mantra when he was training her for the acting role of a lifetime. On the contrary, Gadi. I have dozens of questions, and not enough answers.

  • 13 November, 2018