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.