Little Drummer Girl, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: Jun 12, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Little Drummer Girl, The (Blu-ray Review)


George Roy Hill

Release Date(s)

1984 (March 26, 2024)


Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: B-
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: D

The Little Drummer Girl (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Given its subject matter, Warner Archive’s Blu-ray release of The Little Drummer Girl (1984) is as timely as Hell, but director George Roy Hill’s film of John le Carré’s novel is a frustrating, confusing mess. It’s interesting throughout, with scattered effective moments; it’s sincerely made and intriguingly offbeat in some respects, especially some of the casting, but it never comes together in a cohesive manner. I’ve not seen the reportedly much superior 2018 television miniseries version, nor have I read le Carré’s novel, also highly regarded.

Confused by some of the plotting, I did something I rarely do watching movies for the first time: partway through, I read several reviews, including one by the late Roger Ebert. Ebert had read and thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and the crux of his negative review was that the film was, in a sense, too faithful to the book. In trying to cram everything into the 132-minute film, the richness of its characters and motivations were lost, which seems pretty spot-on.

Diane Keaton stars as “Charlie” Ross, a politically far-left and specifically anti-Zionist American actress working in London, a character obviously based partly on British actress Vanessa Redgrave, but also activist journalist Janet Lee Stevens and le Carré’s half-sister, Charlotte Cornwell. Charlie is offered a lucrative job appearing in a wine commercial to be shot in Greece. While on location she meets Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis), whom she believes is the same Palestinian activist she saw lecture in England, his face then hidden under a ski mask to hide his identity.

In fact, the entire shoot is an elaborate ruse by the Israeli Mossad to kidnap and recruit her, it’s leader, Martin Kurtz (Klaus Kinski), insisting they, too, only want to bring peace to the Middle East, through (mostly) non-violent means. This is where the core of the film begins to unravel: Why would anti-Zionist Charlie ever agree to work for the Mossad? The screenplay, by Loring Mandel, suggests a mixture of Kurtz vaguely threatening Charlie while simultaneously presenting his team as “plain folks,” ordinary, welcoming family types sincere in their desire for lasting peace. Kurtz also plays on Charlie’s vanity as an actress and manipulates her through her obvious attraction to Joseph, whose very presence within the organization would seem to dissuade many of her suspicions.

In any case, Charlie finally agrees to Kurtz’s plan: to flush out mysterious PLO bomber Khalil by presenting Charlie as the lover of his brother, the same Palestinian Charlie saw lecturing in England but now held prisoner by Kurtz’s group. Though suspicious of Charlie despite her public anti-Zionist views, the PLO gradually accept her, where she trains and proves herself capable at a Jordanian desert guerilla camp, all the while her movements carefully monitored by Kurtz.

Deeply cynical, The Little Drummer Girl nevertheless is notable as one of the first—if not the first—English-language film to present Palestinians as something other than a negative stereotype (e.g., The Delta Force, The Naked Gun, etc.), as bloodthirsty bomb-toting terrorists, and Israeli intelligence agents as saintly “freedom fighters.” Though it does not condone the violence inflicted by either side of this conflict, le Carré’s novel and the film explicitly emphasize that the PLO are not anti-Semitic but anti-Zionist. Conversely, Kurtz and his team are hardly honorable, torturing and murdering Palestinians with impunity, not to mention lying to the naïve Charlie throughout the story.

The underrated Diane Keaton would seem an odd choice for a role originally written for a British woman in her 20s. The offbeat casting almost works. Keaton, still remembered chiefly for her ‘70s comedies with Woody Allen, despite simultaneous appearances in The Godfather films, worked hard to retool her screen image giving fine performances in Reds (1981) and other films. The Little Drummer Girl interestingly allows Keaton’s uniquely quirky style to come through the character, and her playing an actress-playing-an-actress is also fairly credible, though Keaton’s attempt at an English actress (in her stage roles) is not.

One problem with the film seems to be the interesting but misguided casting of Klaus Kinski as Kurtz. Kinski is fine but the character seems written as a subtly manipulative charmer, the kind of part that might have worked better with, say, Anthony Hopkins or Derek Jacobi. One look at wild-eyed Kinski, and you’d have thought Charlie would be outta there in a heartbeat.

Mostly, though, it’s the confusion Hill’s film (his penultimate feature) can’t avoid that chiefly frustrates audiences. Le Carré’s spy intelligent, cynical spy novels are complex and morally ambiguous; even the celebrated miniseries of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Alec Guinness as George Smiley (and its follow-up) demands the viewer’s full attention throughout. Yet The Little Drummer Girl, in faithfully adapting the novel, disregards the needs of the audience to at least be able to follow the plot, even if through the experiences of its manipulated protagonist.

Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of The Little Drummer Girl presents the film in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The transfer is impressive even while, visually, Wolfgang Treu’s cinematography isn’t very interesting. The DTS-HD Master Audio is 2.0 mono, one of the last big studio releases not in stereo; it’s okay. Optional English subtitles are provided on this region-free release. The only extra is a trailer, one that doesn’t know how to sell the film.

Adaptations of le Carré novels are often excellent (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Russia House, both versions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, etc.) and the makings of another fine film are present here, though the various components just don’t come together this time.

- Stuart Galbraith IV