John Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl is one of the finest of all spy novels. The story concerns terrorism and anti-terrorism, focussing on the Israeli/Palestinian situation, and is full of convolutions and surprises. The book's multiple themes include the moral ambiguity of both sides, the coercive power of love, and the cost of violence to those who perform it. George Roy Hill's film version of the book manages to keep a surprising amount of both the plot and the themes in the film, but something has been lost. The film, while good, is not one of the great spy films.
The problem is Hill. His direction is professional, but doesn't capture Le Carre's shadowy world of men and women willing to do anything for their cause. Hill's great talent is for mixing drama and action with humor, as demonstrated by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, and The World According to Garp, among many other films with similar tones. The Little Drummer Girl comes to life on the few occasions when Hill can legitimately set a lighter tone. At all other times, even in action sequences, the film is, well, not lifeless, but also not electric.
Part of the problem would have been hard for anyone to avoid. As mentioned, the plot is complex (not by Le Carre's standards, perhaps, but certainly by anyone else's). Loring Mandel, the screenwriter, almost miraculously fits in all of the important elements of the story, and still manages to touch upon the major themes within a two hour script. However, this fine job of compression requires Hill to play most scenes rather slowly so that the audience can follow what's going on. Hill has always preferred to set a quicker pace. A great script, as opposed to this very good one, or a director more comfortable with leisurely pacing might have been able to get more from the project.
The Little Drummer Girl was a controversial book which managed to offend both Palestinians and Israelis by presenting the justice of both of their causes and the savagery of both sides' methods. The film preserves this point of view. The story concerns an Israeli plot to catch one of the most important Palestinian terrorists, Khalil. The Israeli scheme centers on the terrorist's preference for using European women recruited to the Palestinian cause, and the relative visibility of Khalil's brother, who is part of the terrorist organization. To make the plot work, Kurtz, the Israeli leading the operation, must infiltrate an agent into the terrorist group. He chooses Charlie, an actress with pro-Palestinian leanings. Kurtz's first task is to convince Charlie to do it against her convictions. The method used is brilliant, playing on Charlie's deepest insecurities and need for love rather than trying to convert her to the Israeli point of view. Now Charlie is ready to start on an adventure that will take her across Europe and to Palestinian training camps in Lebanon and will require the actress to give the performance of her life.
Diane Keaton gives a pretty good performance as Charlie. The role was originally written for an Englishwoman, but the conversion to an American doesn't much harm the film, and was an economic necessity. There is currently no British actress of the right age with the box office power necessary to bring large audiences in. Keaton's weakest moments come when she is onstage, doing Shakespeare and Saint Joan. She is much more convincing playing Charlie playing herself. This is the sort of a performance which might get nominated for an Academy Award, in a slow year, but certainly won't win. Klaus Kinski is strong as Kurtz. Hill gets more from him than any director other than Werner Herzog. Yorgo Voyagis plays Joseph, the Israeli agent most responsible for recruiting Charlie. He is strong but somewhat inarticulate. The supporting cast, largely unknowns (to me, at least), is very good.
Technically, The Little Drummer Girl is a typically competent Hollywood movie, with the unusual twist that most of the technical people are Europeans. (Milos Forman also used a European crew for Amadeus, but Forman comes from Czechoslovakia, making him more inclined to use Europeans.) Since The Little Drummer Girl was shot in England, Germany, and Israel, using local talent made a lot of sense, and paid off.
The Little Drummer Girl represents an unusual thematic departure from Hollywood's usual pro-Israel line, only possible because it was based on a novel whose moral ambiguities could not be safely rewritten while preserving the essential qualities of the novel. This film presents a point of view many people have never seen, but is evenhanded in its revelations. It's worth seeing on this basis alone, but it also offers a moderate amount of suspense and a large helping of the kind of intellectual satisfaction given by a tight, complex plot well presented. Good performances and good production values, including fine presentation of locations, add to a rather satisfying film. A more appropriate choice of director might have led to an excellent film.
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