“We’re putting on a production…” says Marty Kurtz (Michael Shannon) to young actress Charlie (Florence Pugh) at the start of The Little Drummer Girl. He proceeds to offer her a part in a show that promises intrigue, style and unpredictable shocks – it’s no coincidence that he could easily be talking about the show itself. Since AMC and BBC One partnered on The Night Manager, expectations have been high for their next John le Carré adaptation, and The Little Drummer Girl doesn’t disappoint.
After that success, this new take on the spy writer’s espionage hijinks is a decidedly knowing affair: it’s a performance about performers putting on performers, who may or may not be performing for each other in between. When we meet Marty, the Israeli agent selects carefully from a suitcase of sunglasses to complete the part he’s playing today, just as Charlie adapts the way she behaves to fit her audience – whether it’s a pub theatre crowd or the enigmatic suitor Becker (Alexander Skarsgard), who approaches her on a sunny Greek beach.
It’s a perfect fit for Park Chan-wook, one of the directors you might least expect to find on a BBC programme. Fresh from The Handmaiden, he’s a filmmaker who’s in his element here, playing with appearances and costumes with an infectious electricity; every new change of clothes (and there are many) comes with a frisson of excitement and a spark of tension, and every item of furniture in every stunningly designed interior becomes an object that anchors and entraps these players, strutting their artifice on an ever-shifting stage. There are six episodes in this whole series, and you can feel the Oldboy director stretching out into every available minute of those lengthy runtimes to indulge in the 1970s atmosphere, filling up the frame with eye-popping primary colours.
But it’s not just about slick surface: the opening set piece loudly grabs your attention, with a ticking soundtrack that sets your pulse rating. What follows is a decidedly slow-burn thriller, but one that’s no less gripping; it’s not until the credits roll on the first hour that you realise how much screenwriters Michael Lesslie (Justin Kurzels’ Macbeth) and Claire Wilson (Partners in Crime) have sunk their claws into you. They take their time to lay out the complex politics that drive events; Marty and co are Mossad terrorists looking to capture Palestinian bomber Khalil, who strikes with the help of a distractingly attractive (for any eyewitnesses) young woman, and so they enlist their own young woman to slip past enemy spies unnoticed. Her own secrets, though, mean that Charlie isn’t quite the pawn they expect, and her own political fews aren’t necessarily as advertised.
Florence Pugh sinks her teeth into a role that is far meatier than it could have been in another show’s hands. Pugh is enjoying a meteoric rise that’s much deserved, with turns in Netflix’s Outlaw King and BBC’s King Lear following her breakout performances in Lady Macbeth and ITV’s Marcella. She’s sensational here, bursting with bite and confidence, smarts and deceit, all wrapped up in a bundle of amusing sarcasm and sincere caution at what she’s being roped into. Can she take on a role and improvise 24/7 as she goes undercover? And is that changed by the presence of Skarsgard’s Becker, a swoonsome, enigmatic figure who carries himself with an intimidating poise?
All these elements start to come together under the watchful gaze of Marty, played by Shannon with a charming eccentricity and a disturbing determination. He’s part spymaster, part detective, as he pieces together the aftermath of a bombing and tracks down the culprit – he could almost be the lead character, were it not for Pugh’s likeable window into this world, a window that comes with a modern lens of awareness of outdated gender tropes. “The good news is I’ve lied to you as little as possible,” Marty tells Charlie, in a crucial conversation. But as she’s asked to pretend to be Becker’s other half, and as Marty ingeniously concocts a fake prison cell in the middle of an apartment owned by a Miss Bach (Clare Holman, having a whale of a time), it soon becomes impossible to tell which parts of this charade are real – and that’s only within the first two hours. “We’re putting on a production,” Shannon’s de facto director declares, and he isn’t kidding: this ambitious project is a sumptuous piece of television packaged with an irresistible number of layers. Get ready to be hooked: this is about to become your new Sunday night obsession.
The Little Drummer Girl premieres on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 28th October. For other must-see TV shows this month, click here to see our October Watchlist.