If you’d asked any film critic a year or two ago to rank the arthouse auteurs most likely to direct a tony high-gloss miniseries for the BBC and AMC, South Korean iconoclast Park Chan-wook may not have been at the very bottom of the list — leave some room for Lars von Trier and Béla Tarr — but his brand of heightened genre kink would have pushed him pretty far down. But here we have the director of the original “Oldboy” putting his slinky moves on what those networks have fashioned as the follow-up to their 2016 critics’ pet “The Night Manager”: another six-part adaptation of a dense John le Carré espionage puzzler, tricked out with expensive, border-hopping backdrops and alluring thesps.
The results, at least based on the two episodes newly premiered at the London Film Festival, are pretty damn fabulous. Anyone expecting a replica of “The Night Manager’s” worsted-wool class act, however, may leave feeling as baited, switched and bemusedly seduced as the titular protagonist, a young London actress and lip-service leftie drawn against her will into a Mossad terrorist-capture mission in the late 1970s. Park is no Susanne Bier, the Oscar-winning Danish melodrama specialist turned safe pair of hands for “Manager”; even under the strictures of serial television, he remains an unruly sensualist, preoccupied less with traditional narrative than with tactile details of body, environment and the aesthetics of violence.
That’s a bold match for le Carré, that most knottily plotty of storytellers, but it proves an oddly complementary one. Drenched in seamy Eurodisco-era ambience and accessorized to the hilt in synthetic fabrics and opaque sunglasses — you can feel the polyester eroticism crackling in the air even when the characters are fully clothed and discussing grave matters of Israeli-Palestinian conflict — “The Little Drummer Girl” leads with woozy world-building, so as to inveigle you into the snaky, deception-laden mechanics of its narrative before you’ve fully realized what’s happening.
It’s certainly a more successful take on one of le Carré’s most elusive, intricate works than George Roy Hill’s sluggish, miscast 1984 film version, which boasted the author himself among its screenwriters. In what amounts to a satisfying draw in the tediously ongoing TV-versus-cinema debate, the long format affords more breathing room both for the material’s complex plotting and a singular filmmaker’s languid atmospherics.
The actors get a decent look-in too: Reliable character chameleon Michael Shannon and recent Emmy winner Alexander Skarsgård may share top billing, but “The Little Drummer Girl” is plainly a star-sealing vehicle for Florence Pugh, the electric 22-year-old Brit whose performance as a ruthless teen bride in “Lady Macbeth” made her the toast of the U.K. film industry last year. Here, she further demonstrates her preternatural knack for combining poised femme fatale carnality with a sardonic adolescent streak — a combination that makes her ideal casting as Charmian “Charlie” Ross, an aspiring actress working the lowly pub-theater circuit, who turns out be a natural at inventing lives and projecting facades.
Like many a well brought-up young bohemian in her era, Charlie is quick to voice progressive views on politics and feminism, even as certain complexities of her favored causes elude her. Unbeknownst to her, her attendance of anti-Zionist discussion groups earns the attention of Marty Kurtz (Shannon, sporting a Nutella-thick accent), a calculating Israeli Mossad spy mounting an elaborate scheme to corner Palestine Liberation Organization bomber Khalil — whose most recent attack on Zionist civilians fills the series’ oblique, white-knuckle prologue. Both sides in this clandestine war, it turns out, count on the wiles of attractive young women to reach the enemy: Notwithstanding the bra-burning happening elsewhere in the decade, feminism has yet to reach the shadowed world of international espionage.
“I refuse to be a slave to the patriarchy,” Charlie asserts when sleek man of mystery Becker (Skarsgård, as perfectly, queasily unreadable as he was in “Little White Lies”) approaches her on the parched Greek island to which an unidentified patron has mysteriously flown her and her drama company colleagues. Little does she know that she’s already being made one, as she falls under the high-cheekboned spell of Becker (that may not be his real name, of course) and follows him to Athens, where things get considerably less romantic after a moonlight kiss at the Acropolis. “The Little Drummer Girl” may stay true to the letter of its 1983 source novel, but craftily infuses a rueful, reflective dose of latter-day gender politics into its storytelling.
The first two episodes of Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson’s tart teleplay patiently spin out revelations of false identity and true political motivation, so that we might fall as hard Charlie does for Becker’s inscrutable, self-professedly “dodgy” charms, before doubling back with some withheld secrets of her own. “The good news is I’ve lied to you as little as possible,” one character says to another at the close of chapter one, and it could really be spoken by any of them. Le Carré’s stories progress best at a slow burn, and the pace thus far feels just right, set by creeping human desire and curiosity, not by rattled-off plot points.
As directed with near-fetishistic glee by Park, with his eccentric fixations on architecture (those staircases!), couture (those buttons!) and visceral sensation (those car speeds!) all intact, this is international intrigue to bathe in rather than hurriedly binge. Indeed, some of the hyperreal lighting design by cinematographer Kim Woo-hyung practically begs for the pause button, as does the dazzlingly saturated primary color-blocking of Sheena Napier’s splendid costumes and Maria Djurkovic’s production design. There are gowns worn by Pugh here, in shades of violent mustard and ultramarine, that will be pored over on Pinterest boards for years to come; few would recall any outfit from “The Night Manager” in terms more elaborate than “expensive gray suit.” That encapsulates the difference between the BBC and AMC’s two blockbuster spy sagas, and the thrilling, risky leap they’ve taken here into outright auteur television.
TV Review: “The Little Drummer Girl”
Limited series (six episodes, two watched for review): AMC, Mon. Nov. 19, 9 p.m.
Credits: Producer: Laura Hastings-Smith. Executive producers: Simon Cornwell, Stephen Cornwell, Joe Tsai, Arthur Wang, Michael Lesslie, Park Chan-wook, John le Carré, Wonjo Jeong. Director: Park Chan-wook.