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'The Little Drummer Girl' review: Tangled spy story is another fine John le Carré adaptation

Florence Pugh in "The Little Drummer Girl."

Florence Pugh in "The Little Drummer Girl." Photo Credit: AMC/Ink Factory/Jonathan Olley

MINISERIES “The Little Drummer Girl”

WHEN | WHERE Monday-Wednesday at 9 p.m. on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT It's the late '70s, and Charlie (Florence Pugh) is part of an English acting troupe that has been staging Shakespeare's "As You Like It" when they get a call from a mysterious benefactor: He wants them all to come to Greece, expenses paid. Once there, Charlie meets a man on the beach, Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), an Israeli agent who wants to recruit her to help capture a Palestinian terrorist, Khalil (Charif Ghattas). The wild plan, as laid out by Becker's spymaster boss, Kurtz (Michael Shannon), is this: She will pretend to have been the lover of Khalil's dead brother, Michel (Amir Khoury), and thereby gain his confidence. But first, Becker will teach her everything she must know about her prey. This six-hour adaptation is based on John le Carré's 1983 novel.  

MY SAY "The Little Drummer Girl" is obviously a tangled spy story, but like any good Le Carré adaptation, that's just the superficial read. This six-parter is more about love and the human heart in conflict with itself, to borrow the famous William Faulkner phrase. Another renowned William figures here — that one from Stratford, whose play "As You Like It," and whose cherished heroine, Rosalind, shadow the series' deeper meaning. "The Little Drummer Girl" is already a smash in England, and easy to see why: It's so thoroughly English.

 "Drummer Girl" was also directed by acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook, and before long, you begin to wonder what drew him to this most English of writers and of stories. One guess is that Chan-wook saw, possibly even felt, its themes so brutally played out in his own homeland.

With her masculine name, Charlie is conspicuously modeled after Shakespeare's Rosalind, who also went undercover, but as a teenage boy named Ganymede. Both are wise to the ways of love, both to an extent contemptuous of love — until (of course) they are not.  Charlie sees love as part of the role she must play, or "the only way I know how to do it is to live it so it becomes the truth for me. So if I love Michel, I have to really love him, completely."

 And so her fiction — or in Kurtz's estimation, her brilliant "improvisation" — proceeds. She must feign her love for Michel, then feign her love for his brother Khalil. She must feign her love for Becker, because his complicated charade to lure Khalil requires that she see him as Khalil. As an actress, she rationalizes the charade. But as a human, the rationalization starts to break down. Her heart divided, her mind follows. She loves an Israeli and Palestinian — a Montague and Capulet — and embraces their profoundly diametrical ideologies. Something has to crack, or someone. Will that be Charlie?

What makes "The Little Drummer Girl" so good is the methodical pursuit of an answer. But for any of this to work, Pugh needs to nail another performance — arguably the most important. She has to be relatable, likable, a real human instead of just an actress strutting and fretting her hour (or six of them) on this convoluted stage. Her love needs to be real. Which one, however? 

Chan-wook has created something beautiful and precise in all this, but his pacing can be so languid that both spy and love story at times feel like academic exercises. Skarsgård's Becker — his heart also divided — can be chilly and remote to the point of off-putting. They require patience (yours). At least it'll be rewarded.

BOTTOM LINE Another fine Le Carré adaptation but not quite as fun as 2016's "The Night Manager."

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