The realm of espionage isn’t typically associated with color. Clandestine operatives work in the shadows, fading into the background by necessity. But in The Little Drummer Girl, a new miniseries based on the 1983 novel by John le Carré, the elaborate subterfuges of the spies—and their plot to infiltrate a Palestinian terror cell by passing off a young British actor as a sympathizer of their cause—depend on being seen. So that actor, Charlie (Florence Pugh), meets her handler at the Acropolis wearing a dazzling canary-yellow dress. Smugglers sneak explosives across international borders wearing traffic-light colors, vivid shades of red and green.
The vibrant palette selected by the South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook (Stoker, The Handmaiden) for his first foray into television serves a variety of purposes. Park, who before he was a filmmaker wanted to be an art critic, has a painterly eye for chiaroscuro, casting elements and characters in his work into sharp contrast using light and shade. With The Little Drummer Girl, he wanted to take things a step further, differentiating the look of the show from his previous work, and from other movies in the espionage genre. In his films, he told me via a translator during an interview in an editing suite in London, primary colors are used sparingly, as accents in otherwise calm environments. But in The Little Drummer Girl, color is front and center. “It’s actually more beneficial,” Park said, “for these characters to be noticed and to be witnessed in the fiction they’re creating.”
Park’s bold hues also hint at the knotty politics of The Little Drummer Girl, where no one is, or can afford to be, neutral. The six-part AMC series, which concludes its three-night run on Wednesday, is set during the 1970s. Its fiendishly complicated plot imagines an Israeli effort to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell, using Pugh’s Charlie as bait. The Israeli spymaster Martin Kurtz (Michael Shannon) tells her she will be participating in an immersive acting project called “the Theatre of the Real.” She’s seduced into joining his mission by Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård), an Israeli agent who uses method-acting techniques to pull Charlie further into the invented reality that Kurtz has created.