Monday 14 January 2019

On Cable and Brit TV - Park Chan-wook attacks John le Carre's THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL

Let me make clear from the start, I always had a bit of a problem with John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl. In brief I thought it had a level of implausibility quite foreign to the master’s work, certainly to that time, and coming after the dour magnificent totally heart-rending story of The Karla Trilogy it seemed to me to lack authenticity. That’s the greatest sin of all in a spy novel (and the reason why I’ve never managed to admire anything that Charles McCarry writes but causes me to swoon over almost everything that Alan Furst writes…. But I digress. )

Le Carré wanted to explore the highly imaginative methods that Mossad employed to terrorise the Palestinians. Unencumbered by rules or morality, Mossad was the most lethal of spy agencies and years later Israeli writers and film-makers themselves have delved into its dark arts with homegrown TV series Prisoners of War  and later Fauda. I’m sure that all the meticulous Israeli spycraft on show in le Carré’s book, which is set in the late 70s, is based on meticulous observation of the techniques of the day. The current spook tropes of instant access to CCTV and drones weren’t on hand but nevertheless you can see its origins in the detailed spycraft on show in Park Chan-wook’s recently aired BBC mini-series produced by le Carré’s two sons Stephen and Simon Cornwell. 

Florence Pugh as Charlie, The Little Drummer Girl
That element doubtless is completely factual – the silent torture room, the tracking and deception, the use of the mislead (Best example being the smuggled bottles of liquor in the boot as Charlie acts nervous) - all of these ring true. But the central character of Charlie doesn’t. She’s a le Carré construct of a set of attitudes and tropes and thus ridiculously pliable to both the author and the Israeli spymasters who manipulate her. Le Carré seems to find Charlie alternately an object of sympathy and someone whose po-faced leftism is something to poke fun at. She doesn’t ring true on the page, she doesn’t when she’s transformed into the 30+ y-o American naif played by Diane Keaton in George Roy Hill’s movie, and she doesn’t when played by the quirky Florence Pugh, an actress from the Glenda Jackson school of heavy dramatic mannerism and a pout almost worthy of Bardot.

Michael Shannon as Kurtz the spymaster, The Little Drummer Girl
Caught up in the twists and turns of the drama you can of course sail obliviously through the seduction and turning of Charlie, the smart and sassy left-winger actress (i.e she is chosen because she can play roles) whom the Israelis inveigle into their plan to trap a Palestinian ‘terrorist’. You might find this a likely tactic given what we know of Mossad’s imagination (think of those fake Australian passports) and I guess you can be on the edge of the seat wondering which way Charlie will turn. 

Park Chan-wook, a director well known for bloating his subjects and being somewhat careless with any sense of authenticity, may well be a perfect choice for this material. Some might have questioned it but not Park who himself sails into the narrative with the gusto and enthusiasm of an outsider with not a care as to whether it rings true, whether the bundle of contradictions that constitute Charlie add up and possibly, on the evidence, with an entire lack of any comprehension of the greater politics of what lies beneath le Carré’s narrative and what he was really wanting to discuss. 

I don’t imagine Park got the gig because he made Stoker (one of the most embarrassingly inept films ever selected for and screened at the Sydney Film Festival where I saw it in a State Theatre which gradually filled with mounting disbelief). I do imagine Park got the gig in part at last because he made Old Boy, now apparently a ‘cult classic’ in which a man eats a live octopus, among many other indignities on show. The Cornwells' desire to liven up the le Carré back catalogue for an almost BBC/Dickens like series of adaptations does have this interesting trope whereby they have approved directors from out of the mainstream most notably recently the Swede Tomas Alfredson for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the Dane Susanne Bier for The Night Manager.

Park’s The Little Drummer Girl isn’t dull though I wouldn’t give it any gongs for scintillating mise-en-scène either. He's a devotee of wide-angles and big close-ups. I also found it interesting that it credits two writers separately. Michael Lesslie gets sole credit (as well as an all-over Executive Producer credit) for eps 1, 2, 4 and 6 and Claire Wilson for eps 3 and 5. How that worked, I wouldn’t know but given all the discussion about these TV things resting on the writer/showrunner as opposed to the director its intriguing. A subject for further research but possibly it all remained well and truly under the control of the Cornwell brothers. 

Le Carre’s story comes through. It’s just I've never gotten over the high improbability level involved in the whole enterprise, something which started way back with one of the master’s lesser titles.
London Film Festival premiere of The Little Drummer Girl
Florence Pugh, Michael Shannon, Park Chan-wook, John le Carre
Alexander Skarsgard

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