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‘The Little Drummer Girl’ (Blu-ray review)

The Palestinians are fighting to reclaim their land. The Israelis are trying to stop another terrorist attack on their people.

One woman is caught in the middle. Her loyalties being pulled asunder from two different directions.

The love of one man could mean her death or the death of an innocent.

Charlie, a theater actress and pro-Palastinian activist is “spotted” and recruited by Joseph, a “talent spotter” for an Israeli Zionist spy cell.

Needing to find a woman to pose as the girlfriend of a recently captured and killed man, this group asks Charlie to enter the “theater of the real ” for them to help expose and stop a Palestinian bomber named Khalil before he can kill again.

Khalil is responsible for a number of recent bombings of prominent Jewish political people.

Charlie must lie and pretend to be in love with the dead man. Joseph, pretending to be the brother, whisks Charlie around the Mediterranean posing as lovers in an effort to deceive Khalil that Charlie can be trusted enough to infiltrate their group in hopes that she can discover the details of the next bombing before it happens.

Charlie is enveloped in a world of emotions and deceit, first falling for Joseph and then getting caught up in his world of lies.

Will she lose herself?

Will her facade be discovered and her life ended when the truth comes out?

This is the world of the 1984 adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl.

Directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Slapshot, Slaughterhouse-Five) and based on the controversial and gripping novel of the same name by master spy writer, John Le Carré.

Published in 1981, Le Carré wrote The Little Drummer Girl as great turmoil rocked in the Middle East and affected everyone around the world.  A tumultuous and tragic time it seems we are still experiencing to this day. The current events and the events of the past are still linked. It is as if Le Carré had his finger on a pulse that is still pounding and affecting us today.

Originally written as a twentysomething naive British woman, who some say was based on actress Vanessa Redgrave but Le Carré has said was based on his half-sister Charlotte, also an actress, whom he had hoped would play her in a movie adaptation.

The 37 year old Keaton was cast and the story was changed to an older, disillusioned, struggling American actress. A change, in my opinion, does not really affect the overall point of the story. And with Keaton’s acting chops prove to be perfectly believable in the role. I know some complained, at the time, that she was miscast but I think a lot of that has to do with audiences preconceived notions of her being a comedic actress and not a dramatic one.

When I first saw this film back as a teen and then again as a twentysomething, I originally had watched it because of my love of Diane Keaton. A love, by the way that has never waned or lessened. I was floored by her dramatic acting. This film was my first exposure to her as a dramatic lead actress and loved her characterization of Charlie, the expat American actress, living in England, who gets caught up in this world of espionage. I didn’t read the book till years later and had not re-watched the film until I was asked to review this Blu-ray release.

This film, for me, is also such a departure from the type of films that I primarily know Hill for. I know him as a brilliant comedic director whose fast and loose style and his sense of comedic timing is top notch. He has taken this talent and converted it to a nail biting and kinetic thriller.

Also, I can’t believe this was George Roy Hill’s penultimate film. He followed this with his final film 4 years later, the terrible 1988 Chevy Chase movie, Funny Farm. He never directed another film until his death in 2002.

Hill and screenwriter, Loring Mandel, who was predominantly a television writer, tackle the adaptation of this extremely dense and intense world that Le Carré created with aplomb.

Condensing certain story points and giving us a well thought out spy thriller in just over 2 hours. The multiple storylines and extremely complex emotional journeys are traversed with expert skill by both the production team and the brilliant array of international actors.

Joining Keaton are the incomparable Klaus Kinski, Yorgo Voyagis, Sami Frey, and Michael Christopher. This film also features a young pre-fame performance by Bill Nighy as well as the acting debut of Dana Wheeler-Nicholson.

As a fan of Le Carré, Hill, Keaton, and Kinski this film is a grand slam for me. I love the way the story unfolds and as all the pieces fall into place and the intensity builds. I never feel lost or wondering “What is going on?,” like you can in some adaptations, especially with spy novels.

Hill deftly guides us, along with German cinematographer Wolfgang Treu, best known for DP’ing Das Boot for Wolfgang Peterson. His camerawork handles the frenetic story laid out by Mandel with ease. By locking down the camera and steadily following the action, Treu allows the action to happen in the static frame only panning or dollying to follow what is happening.

By allowing the viewer to watch the events unfold as if watching a play he never loses the viewer  as to what is going on in each shot. This allows each actor to be superb and show off their craft. One thing that struck me this time around is even though Kinski has a reputation for upstaging his fellow performers he is almost reserved in this film in his in performance as the Zionist Leader, Kurtz.

Again, Keaton shines as Charlie. She proves she can be a dramatic actress as she is a comedic one. Watching her go from somewhat cocky and self assured, almost belligerent actress to a vulnerable and devastated, and broken human is incredible to watch. A master of her craft.

I will say that as a fan of this film and there having only been a standard definition release of this available until now seeing the HD transfer and the mostly hands off restoration of the negative that this is a perfectly adequate version of this film. It is basically a “back catalog” release and sort of a “no-frills” Blu-ray with just a trailer for extras and 2.0 DTS-HDMA stereo soundtrack. I am just happy that I don’t have to watch my laserdisc upconverted from 480 to 4K anymore. HAHA!

If you are like espionage and political thrillers, and are looking to dive into a well crafted film then I recommend The Little Drummer Girl. A taught, intriguing adaptation of one of John Le Carré’s bestselling novels.

 

 

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