Is the 1984 flop The Little Drummer Girl really a spy thriller, as it says on the tin, or an existential drama about a woman losing her mind because she believed in nothing to start with?
Diane Keaton stars in this adaptation of a semi-successful John Le Carré novel (attempts have been made to re-appraise it since the author’s death), playing an actress recruited by the Israeli secret service to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist network. Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) based “Charlie” on his half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, who around this time was suing a UK newspaper for suggesting her “bum is too big”. She won, on the grounds that it was a personal attack rather than fair comment. What she thought about the character of Charlie has not been recorded.
Read the Wikipedia entry if you want to understand what’s going on, because this adaptation’s lack of an authorial voice fails to make things clear. Charlie’s views on Palestine seem straight enough though – she’s against the oppression of a dispossessed people by the Zionists – which makes her rationale for accepting a gig offered by the Israeli secret-service mystifying. Instead of a solid reason, it’s suggested either that Charlie is driven by her actor’s vanity – this is a good role she’s been offered! Or driven by her desire for her darkly handsome handler, Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis). Neither seems really plausible. Both make her seem silly.
Charlie is a jobbing repertory actor touring draughty provincial theatres in the UK and yet dresses in that “Keaton style” of mannish clothes with a relaxed fit made popular by the film Annie Hall and costing way more than her character could afford. What we’re getting is Hollywood star Diane Keaton rather than struggling actress Charlie, which doesn’t help with a film that’s bewildering enough already. All that said, initially at least Charlie is a fairly known quantity. It’s only later that she gets harder to read and Keaton, perhaps floundering, starts to get shrill.
As the action moves from the UK to Palestine, where Charlie is trained in the ways of the “struggle”, doing the training, learning to disassemble rifles and make bombs, it becomes increasingly evident that The Little Drummer Girl does not work as a spy thriller. Who are the good guys? Is it the Palestinians and their struggle to regain their homeland, or the Israelis, who are also struggling – not to be pushed into the sea.
Le Carré is off his Cold War home beat, where his task was twofold: to suggest that a position that was straightforward to most people – we are the good guys and the Soviet Bloc are the bad guys – was a bit more nuanced than that. And to point out that spying isn’t glamorous. It’s not James Bond.
But when Le Carré makes similar points here about Middle East politics not being as cut-and-dried as the newspaper headlines and propagandists suggest, he’s likely to elicit the response, “Tell me something I don’t know”. (It does, though, explain how the notoriously cautious BBC felt able to remake this as a TV series in 2018 without fear of being attacked by either side – the show was as opaque as this film version and its star, the brilliant Florence Pugh, also got as stuck as Keaton does.)
There is no place in this story for George Smiley, though manipulative older Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Klaus Kinski) comes very close – and in his claims to be representing a more emollient branch of the Israel spy community, one that favours a two-state solution to the Palestine situation, we’re fairly sure Kurtz is just saying what Charlie wants to hear, but we can’t be sure. It’s the sort of game Smiley would play.
The film was the penultimate directorial effort by George Roy Hill, whose bizarre career went stratospheric with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and The Sting in 1973 and then fell back to earth and stayed there. He brings a slick professionalism to proceedings, no frills, no grace notes, no idiosyncrasies, which was what he tended to do and got him critical blowback at times – in the age of the auteur director, George Roy Hill didn’t play that game. And thank god for that, here anyway, since the last thing this film needs is someone else adding curlicues.
Other little enjoyments include a few glimpses of early Bill Nighy, as one of Charlie’s fellow thespians cranking it out on stage. It’s all there – the pursed lips, the mournful fluting delivery – all pupating away nicely.
Gather ye rosebuds where ye may – The Little Drummer Girl has scant few to offer.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021