by Jack Sommersby
One of those motion pictures that promises a riveting, mesmerizing tale but shortchanges the audience on the basics.Sometimes unremarkable directing isn't a liability if the writing is considerably better, particularly when the characters and dialogue are first-rate (the Hal Ashby-directed/Robert Towne-scripted The Last Detail comes to mind). In the case of The Little Drummer Girl, a watered-down, spotty version of best-selling spy novelist John le Carre's lengthy book, director George Roy Hill's work, which has never been anything to get out of bed for, is merely average, thus the screenplay's weaknesses, among them contextual chasms resulting from the jettisoning of a great deal of character facets and plot points, stand out even more. The book was an enjoyable, complicated piece that showcased a fascinating lead character: that of a spunky young twenty-something British stage actress, Charlie, doing time in a second-rate repertory company, recruited by the head of Israeli intelligence, Kurtz, to act as a double agent to flush out the leading Palestinian terrorist, Kahlil. In the film, however, Charlie, played by Diane Keaton, is an American and a good fifteen years older: a steadfast liberal, she's decidedly pro-Palestinian; after a rehearsal she attends a lecture held by a Palestinian terrorist speaking with a hood over his head, and when one of the audience members criticizes the man over his side's violent acts, Charlie stands up and rebukes him. Charlie speaks her mind and makes no apologies for her brazenness, and Kurtz, pretending to be a wine-company executive, offers Charlie two weeks in Greece to star in a commercial. It's there she's kidnapped and brainwashed by Kurtz and his team: Kurtz purports to be against extremism on both sides and wants the violence to end; he convinces Charlie that eliminating Kahlil, whose speciality is bombs with a teasing signature object left behind with each device, is necessary to achieve this (though, and this is a flaw inherent in the book as well, Charlie doesn't bother having Kurtz explain how he means to neutralize the violent extremists on the Israeli side). After some initial resistance, Charlie, with Kurtz pressing into her head that aside from participating in a few protests she hasn't done anything truly constructive to bring about peace, relents. She's to play the ultimate "role": the girlfriend of Kahlil's brother who has been captured by Kurtz and his gang; fabricated love letters from him to her have been manufactured to lend credence to her cover. Eventually, Kahlil's operatives locate Charlie, she convinces them she wants to fight, she's taken to a camp in Lebanon to train, and is eventually given assignments to carry out, which eventually leads her to Kahlil.
"Middling John le Carrï¿½ Adaptation"
What we should be watching is an unfulfilled, unfocused woman finally finding a juicy part to play and exhilarating in the dangers associated with it, where, unlike in the theatre, the conflicts are real and have real consequences. We should also be seeing a conflicted Charlie unsure exactly which side is the righteous one; and then later, with blood spilled by both Israelis and Palestinians (violence she observes first-hand and even plays a part in), that maybe the conflict isn't as black-and-white as previously thought. Kurtz justifies the killings committed during the operation as necessary to eventually "bring about peace"; he wants Charlie to look at the big picture and overlook the violent means as justifiable toward achieving that. We should be right there with her, sharing in her frazzled apprehensiveness, never knowing whose allegiance she should ultimately be aligning with. But we're emotionally distant from Charlie more often than not. First, Keaton isn't dynamic in either talent or screen presence: she seems uncertain as Charlie even from the get-go; there's no contemplation, no view of the character, just second-hand parts lacking a chassis; so we're baffled why a pro like Kurtz sees her as the ideal operative. When acting alongside Yorgo Voyagis, who plays Joseph, Kurtz's second-in-command and Charlie's love interest, Keaton is more at ease; but with the crux of the film on her shoulders, she doesn't inject Charlie with the temerity that would convince us of her willingness to subject herself to such risk-taking. Second, the screenplay by Loring Mandel (a former television writer) shortchanges Charlie of psychological nuance. For those who haven't read the book, this pro-Palestinian activist's decision to work for a country whose rulers she despises will come off as simply unbelievable; she temporarily switches sides, it seems, just so the plot can progress -- it's characterization by dossier rather than dramatization. Then there's Hill's execution, bereft of both finesse and imagination. With the film hopping from one country to another, Hill approaches the assignment more like a strategist than storyteller -- he gets you from A to B to C adequately enough but can't generate so much as an ounce of narrative propulsion. (Needed is the kind of sustained verve that, say, Costa-Gavras, of Z and State of Siege, could've brought to the party.) So aside from Klaus Kinski's solidity as Kurtz (this usually extroverted actor is admirably restrained) and Sami Frey's understated magnetism as Khalil (he makes a forceful impression in just a few scenes), The Little Drummer Girl is one-hundred-and-thirty undistinguished minutes of mediocrity.The DVD offers up a competent letterboxed transfer but no special features.
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originally posted: 12/09/12 18:30:07