LOADING ...

Park Chan-wook brings swooning romance to AMC’s spy miniseries The Little Drummer Girl

Katie Rife Nov 20, 2018. 12 comments
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

Although Park Chan-wook’s films have always had an air of the operatic about them, it wasn’t until The Handmaiden (2016) that the swooning romantic inside the celebrated auteur of the twisted and perverse truly came alive on screen. Park’s newest project, the three-night, six-part AMC miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, builds on the deliciously heightened sensibilities of his last feature for a glamorous take on the usually rather chilly spy genre. In Park’s hands, this ’70s-set game of geopolitical chess doubles as an exquisitely shot meditation on the masks we wear in life and love, laid over an erotically charged game of cat-and-mouse.

Florence Pugh leads the all-star cast as Charlie, an English actress who, toward the beginning of the first episode, delivers a monologue in front of a seemingly unmanned collection of tape recorders and monitors. It’s presumably some sort of audition—but for what? That’s not clear until the end of the first episode, in which Charlie and her London-based theater troupe full of bohemian radicals are sent to Greece by a mysterious angel investor to stage a production of As You Like It. There, she meets a handsome, enigmatic man (Alexander Skarsgård) who speaks to her like a lover, but refuses to give her his real name.

Impulsively, she follows him on a whirlwind trip to Athens, where Gadi (the first of many aliases) tells her she’s needed to play the part of the smitten European lover of a Palestinian terrorist named Michel, en route to deliver a bomb to his comrades in Austria. A lie, Gadi tells Charlie, isn’t a lie if you really believe it. And so the two begin to act out the love story she’ll be relaying to Michel’s accomplices, until Charlie’s “role” merges with her real life, and passion—and the danger—become real. (Fans of sexually charged letter-writing sequences, rejoice!)

Watching behind the scenes is Mossad agent Kurtz (Michael Shannon) and his sandwich-munching Israeli intelligence unit, the impersonal puppeteers behind this high-stakes undercover operation. Park’s foregrounding of theme over plot does require patience when it comes to the mechanics of Kurtz’s plan, which are introduced early but don’t fully gel until late in the miniseries. Behind a mop of curly hair and a Snuffleupagus’ trunk of a mustache, Shannon’s performance is steadier than his explosive turn in last year’s The Shape Of Water , but is equally mannered and intense. Meanwhile, Skarsgård is appropriately distant as Kurtz’s shapeshifting deputy Becker (a.k.a. Gadi), allowing Pugh to project the complexities of their relationship onto him.

With scenes shot on location in Greece, Lebanon, and all over Europe, AMC clearly invested significant resources into this project, and Park delivers. The Little Drummer Girl is a lavish example of the ’70s as period —not kitsch, not nostalgia, but a true period piece. Park’s vision for the decade is established with extreme wide-angle shots of impersonal office buildings and dimly lit wood-paneled rooms, color-coded in earth tones of orange, green, yellow, blue, and red, and framed as off-kilter as the characters’ competing consciousnesses and shifting moral frameworks. The overall impression, particularly when combined with the similarly color-coded costuming, combines Sirkian melodrama and Wes Anderson-esque precision, albeit without the latter’s symmetry fetish.

Park’s omniscient detachment also extends to the series’ politics, which involve the conflict between Israel and Palestine. He carefully avoids taking sides, depicting both the Israeli and Palestinian movements as principled, but capable of great cruelty. The Little Drummer Girl prefers to gloss over the messy complexities of Middle Eastern politics entirely, enamored as it is with the intimate realm of romance and the intellectual realm of ethics and identity. Combined, they produce something that’s a bit sluggish as a spy story, but sublime as a work of auteurist art.


Reviews by Vikram Murthi will run from Monday, November 19 through Wednesday, November 21.

12 Comments

Other Katie Rife's posts

Creepshow comes home for an exclusive poster reveal Creepshow comes home for an exclusive poster reveal

George Romero and Stephen King’s original 1982 Creepshow opens with an innocent-looking young boy sitting in bed underneath his Dracula poster, grinning at the skeletal Creep hovering outside his window beckoning him towards a night of ghastly, gruesome horror delights. Now, the creep is coming from inside the house.We’ve got the premiere of the poster for Shudder’s new TV...

Indiana will miss you too, Parks And Recreation Indiana will miss you too, Parks And Recreation

Although the show has gotten a bit loose with its ostensible small-town Indiana location in recent seasons (there are an awful lot of palm trees in Pawnee), there’s no denying that Parks And Recreation has been a positive influence on the image of a state whose previous mottos include “Nope, you’re not in Chicago yet” and “Michael Jackson was...

A nostalgic doc celebrates one of the craziest chapters of the video-store era A nostalgic doc celebrates one of the craziest chapters of the video-store era

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This month: The A.V. Club atones for its sins of omission, recommending the best movies of the year that we didn’t review.Electric Booglaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films (2014)Mark Hartley, the documentarian behind Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of...

Miley Cyrus and Elaine May to star in Woody Allen’s Amazon series Miley Cyrus and Elaine May to star in Woody Allen’s Amazon series

In what surely must be part of a bet with Lady Gaga over who can EGOT first, Deadline reports that noted pot leaf and glitter enthusiast Miley Cyrus has signed on to star in Woody Allen’s upcoming Amazon show. She won‘t be alone, though, as Elaine May and Allen himself are also set to star in the series. However,...

Suggested posts

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is a bite-sized bit of theatrical satire Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein is a bite-sized bit of theatrical satire

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  There’s plenty to admire about Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein, not the least of which is its brevity. Netflix, after all, is a great offender in the “too much content” era in which we live—they gave 13 episodes to an adaptation of Green Eggs And Ham , for Christ’s sake—and we...

Baskets returns for a fourth season with a healthier attitude toward change Baskets returns for a fourth season with a healthier attitude toward change

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  Baskets has remained tonally consistent over the past three seasons. The extended Baskets clan—Chip (co-creator and star Zach Galifianakis), Dale (also Galifianakis), Christine (Louie Anderson), her husband Ken (Alex Morris), and Martha (Martha Kelly)—have more or less remained in a state of existential upheaval. Personal and professional failure, medical diagnoses,...

Netflix's exhilarating 3% shows no signs of slowing down Netflix's exhilarating 3% shows no signs of slowing down

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  The latest season of 3%, Netflix’s bold and adventurous dystopian parable, opens with intertitles that announce just how radically the series has reinvented its premise. “The world was divided into two sides,” they begin, reminding viewers of the literal and figurative gap between the elite and the masses that drove...

David Tennant and Michael Sheen's chemistry keeps Good Omens afloat David Tennant and Michael Sheen's chemistry keeps Good Omens afloat

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  The stakes of Amazon’s Good Omens are probably the highest of any TV series, with the opposing forces of Heaven and Hell preparing to wage the war to end all wars—and life—here on Earth. But while that conflict does provide the broader framework for the six-part limited series (and the...

The Fleabag season 2 premiere is a godsend The Fleabag season 2 premiere is a godsend

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  The melancholy comedy of Fleabag season one made for some of the best TV in recent history, its mix of depravity and empathy encapsulated in a bravura performance from series creator, writer, and lead Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose star has continued to rise in the three years since. That’s right, it’s...

Netflix’s Chambers is a little too weird for its own good Netflix’s Chambers is a little too weird for its own good

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  Chambers, the new supernatural drama being released this week on Netflix, really wants to intrigue you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be terribly certain how to go about doing that, so it ends up throwing a whole bunch of dark imagery on screen and hoping some of it sticks. There’s...

Tacoma FD has a certain retro charm to its dad jokes and fart sounds Tacoma FD has a certain retro charm to its dad jokes and fart sounds

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  To people of a certain age (read: those who were in college when Super Troopers came out), the Broken Lizard troupe is a go-to reference point for stoner-friendly comedy cinema, a group of amiable, scatalogical-happy humorists who excelled at stretching sketch comedy ideas into film form without requiring too much...

The Hummingbird Project could have used some of the crazed vision of its computer-age bandits The Hummingbird Project could have used some of the crazed vision of its computer-age bandits

Movie ReviewMovie ReviewThe Hummingbird ProjectC+Movie ReviewThe Hummingbird ProjectC+C+The Hummingbird ProjectDirectorKim NguyenRuntime111 minutesRatingRLanguageEnglishCastJesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek, Michael MandoAvailabilitySelect theaters March 15Benjamin Franklin’s well-worn adage that time is money has led us, some centuries later, to the business of high-frequency trading, or HFT. Shares are bought and sold by algorithms in the blink of an eye for fractional profits...

Hulu's Shrill is the start of something great Hulu's Shrill is the start of something great

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  Short, sweet, and full of potential, Hulu’s Shrill does more than fill the dating comedy void left by The Mindy Project on the platform. The series, loosely based on Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, combines heartfelt commentary on beauty myths with workplace drama and millennial misadventures, while...

Now Apocalypse is a kinky stoner comedy for the end times Now Apocalypse is a kinky stoner comedy for the end times

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  On Now Apocalypse, everyone is having sex and doing drugs like their days are numbered—which they very well could be in this mash-up of science fiction, entertainment industry critique, and dating comedy.The series, from film festival darling Gregg Araki and Slutever founder Karley Sciortino, follows a group of twentysomething friends,...

Language