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The Meta Role of a Lifetime: On Florence Pugh’s Breakout Performance in ‘Little Drummer Girl’

The John le Carré adaptation depends on a complicated, messy performance from the young ‘Lady Macbeth’ star. She delivers, and then some.

AMC/Ringer illustration

The Little Drummer Girl, the John le Carré novel, is about an elite crew of Israeli spies and the British actress they recruit to help them infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist group. The Little Drummer Girl, the AMC miniseries airing in a three-night event this week, is about a British actress and the elite crew of Israeli spies who recruit her. It’s a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference — in distinguishing the show from its source material, in updating said source material from 1983 to 2018, and in who emerges as the star, and breakout, of this latest globetrotting thriller.

On paper, Little Drummer Girl is the most recent application of a winning strategy AMC stumbled on with The Night Manager in 2016 and opted to repeat ad infinitum until its welcome wears out: the glamorous, high-budget espionage yarn, taken from a densely plotted book and co-produced with the BBC. (Pooling resources no doubt helps with the location fees on all those jaw-dropping mansions.) After Night Manager, Little Drummer Girl is its second Le Carré adaptation, with Alexander Skarsgard swapping in for Tom Hiddleston as the handsome male lead bordering on middle age and legendary South Korean director Park Chan-wook, in his second-ever English-language project after the Hitchcockian Stoker, taking over for Susanne Bier.

And yet the series Little Drummer Girl reminds me of most isn’t either of its network siblings. It’s Killing Eve, the delicious, effervescent cat-and-mouse game that became a word-of-mouth sensation earlier this spring. Though the two series share a genre, there’s enough to separate them that they’re not natural peers: Killing Eve is written in the unmistakable voice of creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, while The Little Drummer Girl honors and preserves Le Carré’s; Killing Eve is a contemporary, gender-bent inversion of the classic spy story, while The Little Drummer Girl revels in its vintage setting — film cameras and wide-leg pants abound. And yet both Killing Eve and The Little Drummer Girl serve as a showcase for the young actress at their center, who take roles that in lesser hands could be flattened into a prop, but instead are rendered as gloriously, wickedly, messily alive characters.

The Little Drummer Girl’s answer to Jodie Comer is Florence Pugh, the 22-year-old(!) performer who established herself as a force with Lady Macbeth in 2016. As an English teenager named Katherine married off to an older man, Pugh brings a winning ferocity, thumbing her nose at the men who regard her as property instead of cowing to their demands. What starts as transgressive selfishness rapidly curdles into something much more monstrous, but Pugh’s defiant self-possession keeps the audience on board all the way through. Netflix subscribers can also watch Pugh undergo an ascendant-actress rite of passage in The Outlaw King, which shamefully squanders her as a blandly supportive wife to a blandly heroic Great Man.

Both Pugh’s Little Drummer Girl character Charlie and Comer’s psychopathic assassin Villanelle call on their portrayer to flex every muscle under her precisely calibrated command: her pliability, but also her iron determination; her sexuality, but also her childlike naiveté; her cold calculation, but also her irrepressible feeling. In the show, Charlie’s soon-to-be commander lures her in by promising the role of a lifetime. He might as well be speaking directly to Pugh, who’s been handed the sort of proof of concept most actors spend a career in search of, then spends six hours rising to the occasion.

We meet Charlie before either Marty Kurtz (Michael Shannon), the maverick Mossad officer pulling the strings of their sting operation, or Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgard), her handler-turned-love-interest lured out of retirement in Germany for one last job. During an audition, Charlie demonstrates she’s already versed in what Kurtz calls “the fiction” — blurring the lines between truth and lie and performance and authenticity to confuse the bait as well as the mark — well before he ever explicitly lays out the concept. Becker, meanwhile, is introduced as Charlie first encounters him (in character, as a tourist on a Greek beach). Though the audience has more of an inkling of it than she does, when his true identity is revealed, the rug is pulled out from under us as well as Charlie. Such sequencing is a crucial change from the book and establishes Charlie’s point of view as the show’s. As the only amateur in a group of seasoned professionals, she’s a natural audience surrogate, but Charlie also proves to be the member of the central trio who holds up best to sustained scrutiny.

Kurtz, for his part, is a spy-fiction staple, the deceptively rumpled yet charismatic puppet master of an elaborate show performed in plain sight of the civilian world, yet also miles away from it — what Becker calls “the theater of the real.” He’s the kind of dying breed who exhorts his military boss to “let us be surgeons, not butchers,” then uses an elaborate analogy involving a goat to close his sales pitch. By design, Becker is even more of an enigma: He’s totally committed to what the job asks him to do, and be, at any given moment, so much so that it’s implied there’s not much of a person left underneath all those masks. The same reason Charlie is an ideal tool for their mission is the same reason she makes for a much better emotional center for the show: She’s the only one left with a beating heart. (It helps that Pugh gets to keep her native accent, while Shannon and Skarsgard’s Israeli ones are of, shall we say, doubtful verisimilitude.)

Charlie is, of course, not a trained spy. She’s also not an ideologue, at least not the kind one would expect to join forces with the Israeli government. Like any number of middle-class creatives in their 20s, she’s a nominal leftist, though more in rhetoric than in practice: when a mysterious benefactor offers to send her troupe on an all-expenses-paid Mediterranean vacation, she’s quick to accept and slow to question. Kurtz sees this as more of an advantage than a liability. Charlie can sell herself as a recruit sympathetic to the Palestinian cause because she is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. At the same time, she’s ambivalent — or maybe amoral — enough to hire herself out to the Israelis at the same time. Late in the series, another character asks her who she’s working for. “I’m an actress,” she says. “So you don’t believe in anything?” her questioner responds. It’s more like she’s a believer in multiple causes at once, a contradiction Pugh makes legible without the usual double-agent clichés. Rather than a femme fatale without loyalty to anything, Charlie is a lost soul with loyalty to spare and nothing to focus it on.

What escalates Kurtz’s fiction beyond mere undercover work is the degree of its dissembling. In lieu of a simple cover story — that Charlie has fallen in love with the bomb-maker’s younger brother and primary field agent, who the Israelis have taken prisoner — Charlie is asked to live the affair, with Becker standing in for her fictitious lover. Those prone to cynicism will no doubt wonder whether this process is strictly necessary, and it’s not always clear what is the significance of certain tactics, or how the fiction is communicated to the other side. Together, Pugh, Skarsgard, and Chan-wook silence these concerns: the scenes between Charlie and Becker are the white-hot core of the show, with the combination of psychosexual charge and geopolitical weight Chan-wook first perfected with The Handmaiden, his most recent feature and another inventive adaptation.

Le Carré fiction is better known for its meticulous drudgery than emotional intensity. With a warm, lush color palette and a hair-raising sense of tension, Chan-wook is responsible for much of this tonal shift. But it’s Pugh’s rendition of Charlie, in all her earnest confusion and unbridled anger, that makes The Little Drummer Girl what it is. The very premise of the fiction is that it’s more important for the audience to sense authentic feeling than follow every twist. Pugh buys in every bit as much as Charlie does.