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The Little Drummer Girl: A Colourful Pretence


Having recently finished a six week, six episode run on the BBC, John le Carré adapted spy drama The Little Drummer Girl was divisive in terms of audience reaction. Some found the plot impossible to follow, others revelled in the cloak and dagger shenanigans of twenty-something Charmain ‘Charlie’ Ross (Florence Pugh), a low level actress drawn into a high stakes mission of infiltrating a Palestinian revolutionary group in 1979.

The show’s costume design by Sheena Napier and Stephen Noble inspired equal division. While most enjoyed the eye-popping period ensembles and how they exemplified character, just as many were left confounded by their conspicuous presence. One thing that cannot be disputed is the costumes’ observable use of colours and how they helped deliver series director Park Chan-wook’s visual intent. But exactly how and what on earth do they all mean? There is a deeper scientific discussion to be had here, but for the sake of a general understanding of what The Little Drummer Girl was trying to say with its costume design, we shall keep things relatively simple, adhering to the more commonly accepted readings of colour symbolism.

Charlie (Florence Pugh) in that yellow dress. With a colour this bold it could potentially be distracting to the viewer OR could add a layer of complexity with regards to meaning. The Little Drummer Girl as directed by Park Chan-Wook was never going to be a straightforward experience.

Episode One:

There is colour everywhere from the outset, even a close up of some coloured felt pens. Israeli intelligence officer Gadi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård) is introduced wearing a green jacket and red (more a burnt orange under saturated lights) shirt, as is Michel (Amir Khoury), the younger brother of Khalil Al Khadar (Charif Ghattas), leader of a terrorist cell targeted by Gadi and his colleagues. Exploring the left wing political world of Charlie and her friends, standing around as they are spouting reactionary statements over cigarettes and beer, it feels as though we could be in 1960s Carnaby Street. Block colours and rollnecks, slim trousers and hip huggers. It does not seem entirely real, as le Carré adaptations often don’t (director Tomas Alfredson’s elegant Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy for example). This is typical of Park Chan-wook though – create a heightened, affected reality that’s something akin to a fairytale.

Charlie meets Gadi, at once in bright cautioning yellow, as he blatantly loiters around her group of friends. Giving his name as Joseph, she curtly refers to him as having a “coat of many colours”. This is true; in addition to yellow, we have already seen Gadi in a combination of purple, green and orange. He is not fixed; he is untrustworthy with many sides and facets. Gadi is whomever he needs to be for the company he keeps. He actually wears the red / orange shirt for most of the episode; he is exotic, like Turmeric, but also toxic. Charlie is right to be suspicious. Conversely Michel later chooses a youthful green. Again it is a block colour, not toxic like Gadi’s green. He is not complicated, or certainly not as complicated as he would wish to appear.

As his charm works its magic on Charlie’s naturally inquisitive nature, Gadi buys her a bright yellow maxi dress and wedge shoes for an impromptu trip to Athens. This would have practically been a vintage item in 1979. As Charlie observes grumpily, “I feel like a giant chick”. This is a notable callback to Park’s other heavily colour coded production, Stoker (2013), whereby the character of Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) was given various shades of yellow to wear by costume designers Kurt & Bart to reflect his status as a ‘bird of prey’. Charlie is obviously uncomfortable in the dress. The style is an aesthetic choice to swish and sashay among the temple ruins. Charlie is no fool though; she is allowing herself to be played out of curiosity. A dangerous deed, as there are far more colours and more literal and figurative clashes ahead.

Gadi (Alexander Skarsgård), Charlie and Marty (Michael Shannon). Marty lives in a murky world with no obvious or ethical ‘right or ‘wrong’ and his dreary colour palette reflects this.

Episode Two:

The major reveal of this episode happens within the first few minutes. Charlie’s acting audition for an unseen audience in episode one was actually for Gadi’s companions in the Israeli spy agency, as headed up by Martin ‘Marty’ Kutz (Michael Shannon). Basically it was to test her acting skills as recruitment for an undercover agent. She is wide eyed during these scenes in a green ribbed sweater with ring-pull zip. After the reveal, Gadi enters wearing a blue shirt. He is impotent, pulled along by Marty. Blue is not a power colour and this implies Gadi’s position. He may end up training Charlie as an agent, but this is an early hint that Marty will be pulling all the strings.

Gadi changes into another blue shirt for Charlie’s debrief. This is a very specific blue; a pale, steely blue. He feels vulnerable, paralysed even at the situation he has put Charlie in. No strength. Gadi and his young field crew are complete contrast to elder Marty, a more conspicuously realistic vision of the late 1970s – all suits and zippered cardigans of brown and taupe and beige and grey. Marty anchors the story; he stops it from feeling too theatrical.

Soon, after breaking Charlie’s performance down, her own lie of a life, and revealing his true nature away from the impotent bleached blue, Gadi changes into the red shirt. Exotic again. Moreover he is dressed exactly like Michel. He begins the process of training Charlie as Michel’s lover, referring to himself in the third person, spouting lines such as, “Michel likes it when you wear bold colours”. He is not wrong, as Charlie emerges from the bathroom in a blue jumpsuit he has given her. It has long sleeves with embroidered butterflies on the cuffs and cape (Charlie is ‘becoming’ from her chrysalis). Amusingly, Gadi even corrects Charlie as she presumes the cape is a hood worn to cover her hair. Her cultural naivety is showing. This blue jumpsuit is conspicuous, even within the overt theatricality of Park’s interpretation. What could it mean though? At this point a colour as dependent on context as this could mean anything. What we do know is there is a deeply comic undercurrent to the tone of The Little Drummer Girl. Case in point: Marty and his colleagues all suck on colourful ‘Zoom’ lollipops as their prisoner, the real Michel, wails in the background. Maybe we are not meant to take this spy preposterousness that seriously after all?

The costumes in this show are so distinctive they can help the viewer track who is who when identities start to blur, especially Gadi as Michel. They have a practical as well as interpretative function. At the end of the episode, Charlie wears a green dress, again a block colour, a maxi with long bell sleeves, deep v-neckline and empire waist. She is about to be thrown into her first spy mission. Is she ready though? That colour certainly does not seem to suggest so.

Charlie in her red dress. This and the yellow maxi are her most visible looks in the show. Charlie’s colours gradually become more subdued the deeper she is pulled into her mission.

Episode Three:

We open on Charlie in the same green dress. She is driving a red Mercedes loaded with plastic explosive. Presumably Charlie is supposed to be blending into the background at border patrols, but she won’t be doing that in this outfit. She is marked, like James Bond in a tux strolling through the desert. Remember, however, the theatricality; this a performance. A most elaborate show for those who might be observing.

After checking into a hotel, Charlie changes from her outrageous block colour maxi to an astro print dark blue dagger collar shirt and wide leg trousers. A print! For the first time in a long time Charlie looks, well, natural. Could it be that things are stepping up, that the performance is now becoming life, that her worlds have collided entirely? The next day Charlie dons a dark blue coat and fiery red just-below-the-knee dress and matching red heels so perhaps not. Again her clothing dictates and depicts a performance; the requisite dumb blonde girlfriend – politically vocal but hopelessly ignorant. Charlie in character is dressed this way for a man; a man she believes is true, but a man all the same. When Charlie parks up the Mercedes she is basically a symbolic alert. Whoever is watching, they will not miss her and they are not supposed to. There follows a brief moment with Gadi hilariously in ‘disguise’ as a kind of GQ priest and he then changes back into his uniform attire of green suede jacket, red long sleeve shirt and grey slacks. Colours that are consciously jarring; an amalgamation of personalities and parts.

Having completed her mission, Charlie travels back to London. The city has its own palette set apart from any other location featured in the show. In essence, it’s brown. Charlie is now out of her performance costume wearing a maroon ribbed rollneck sweater, a big buckle belt and black wash jeans. She feels accurate to the period here. It’s a quiet moment, a sombre mood, as she waits for her performance to be initiated again.

Every single person in The Little Drummer is acting in a story within a story. Their parts are drawn completely on the expectations of others – give the people what they want and expect to see. Even Marty has a box full of different spectacles to choose from depending on the image he is intending to project. These spectacles might even have clear lenses; he would go that far. Ironically, and likely due to the intense melding of her performance with real life, Charlie now appears less like herself away from those block colour ensembles. She is becoming the part and vice-versa. “Terror”, the real Michel notes in a singular moment of outsmarting Marty, “is theatre”.

Michel (Amir Khoury) and Gadi both wearing a red and green uniform ensemble. This is not a disguise for Gadi; it is his way of becoming Michel for Charlie. It’s his own actor’s costume. Notably Gadi is never dressed exactly the same as the real Michel, but often very similar.

Episode Four:

Once more, London is depicted as persistently brown, at least if you’re living in Charlie’s world. Gadi on the other hand begins the episode wearing midnight blue – as cold and deep as the ocean. Despite the deadly games of the previous episode and Charlie’s assumed kidnapping by the terrorist cell, he seems to be enjoying himself. As Gadi segues into the character of Michel once again, he removes a grey leather jacket to reveal the familiar green suede zipper underneath.

Colour bleeds into every facet of The Little Drummer Girl. When Charlie is eventually taken by the terrorist cell, she is wearing a lime green sweater and is interrogated in a block colour room comprising of dark green walls and a red floor. Director Park intended a vibrant arena that spotlights the players, Charlie in particular. Before she can launch into this performance by gunpoint, the lights in the room flick off as the electric meter ticks to zero. Charlie then gives her interrogators a fifty pence piece to get the power going again. She is suddenly illuminated by spotlight and her stage awaits. Subtle this ain’t.

Charlie’s long brown suede coat features a lot in this episode. It’s almost golden in some lights, fitting both the location and the climate. This feels more like period definition than colour coding. After seeing so much readable colour on Charlie throughout the previous episodes, the coat’s vagueness is a little disconcerting. Nonetheless, delivered by her suspicious interrogators from London to Lebanon, Charlie is still wearing the brown coat. It seems murkier now as the plot takes hold proper. She is off the grid. The waters are muddied.

Just before the end of the episode, trapped in Lebanon, Charlie is given and instructed to wear a blue striped kaftan with draped red scarf. Does this possibly signal the start of her transition to double agent?

Rachel (Simona Brown), Litvak (Michael Moshonov) and Marty. Despite not being 100% period accurate, Rachel arguably has the most stylishly pleasing and consistent look in the whole show.

Episode Five:

A quick flashback to the end of the last episode and we met Michel’s sister, Fatmeh (Lubna Azabal). She is skeptical of Charlie who is posing as his girlfriend. Being as Michel is now dead, unbeknown to Charlie killed by Marty in a staged car crash, she has every right to be. What’s more, Fatmeh’s appearance makes Charlie look like a gap year tourist. Fatmeh wears a black stand collar cotton jacket – Belstaff vibes. She has no inclination for conventional cultural dress; she is a woman of action. Charlie is immediately sent to a Palestinian training camp by Fatmeh to prove her devotion and mettle. No more maxis or kaftans, for now it is army fatigues and a jumpsuit.

With so much of Charlie in olive drab and Gadi pushed involuntarily into the background for a moment, we can briefly appreciate the easy period style of one of his compatriots: Rachel (Simona Brown). Rachel wears geometric print dagger collar shirts, ribbed rollnecks, flared jeans, short skirts, long leather boots and a beautiful brown suede shearling coat. She is, like Charlie, a little out of time (this whole look whispers early 1970s), but manages to feel of the overall era. There is apparently no directive for her look beyond ‘badass secret agent’, and that’s ok. Sometimes it is just nice to look at pretty clothes while intermittently dropping in on Charlie firing rocket launchers and making IEDs .

However, on her release from camp and given opportunity to bond with her fellow revolutionaries in a small but bustling Lebanon town, Charlie is back in Thea Porter’s finest. Okay, probably not actual Thea Porter, but the multi pattern, high waist, long sleeve, full skirt maxi dress has definite vibes and ticks the box of that most eye-rolling of characterisations: ‘ethnic’. It fits though; it fits The Little Drummer Girl’s fanciful reality.

Incidentally the Michel print t-shirts (similar to the ‘Guerrillero Heroico’ photograph of Che Guevara) worn by those in the town as they brandish AK-47s and chant his name, are either in block red or block green. These are, or were, Michel’s colours. They are also Gadi’s colours, i.e. the red shirt and green jacket, but only when he is playing the part of Michel for Charlie. Confused? Who wouldn’t be, though the concept works for Park’s aesthetic and the showy, near campy atmosphere of the show. Targets, enemies, factions – they are painted and marked. Their visual aura is more straightforward than their politics. “The theatre of the real”, as it is frequently referred to.

Charlie is in disguise as a South African student when she arrives back in London. Her new mission is to plant a bomb on behalf of the terrorist cell. On spotting Charlie at the airport Rachel comments that, “I think she is playing a character”. She is; a plainer, even more manipulated version of herself, in clothes as taupe and cheerless as seventies shag carpet. Whose side is she on now? No block colours; Charlie is undecipherable. Colours in The Little Drummer Girl are not just there for us to read but also for players within the story. Point of reference: Charlie no longer wears the gold and blue sapphire stone bracelet Gadi (as Michel) gave to her back in episode two. This is inferred by Marty that her allegiance may have shifted. However Gadi notes that Charlie sports a new bracelet made from woven thread that is also gold and blue. Is he reaching as others suspect or is this Charlie trying to communicate her intentions without the risk of direct contact? We, like the understandably nervous Israeli agents, can only interpret and surmise.

Charlie in her South African student disguise – a far cry from the vibrant reds, blues and yellows of her earlier ensembles. This is a disguise within a costume however, as Charlie is now playing a part within a part.

Episode Six:

During the first scenes of the final episode, Charlie is almost unrecognisable as the same woman gallivanting around Athens in a La-La Land esque maxi “creating a fiction”. Now she wears skinny jeans, a brown leather biker jacket and the red rollneck sweater makes a return. Her fire is still there, crackling beneath the surface, but she is controlled where she was once impulsive. The fiction has become her reality.

Colour interpretation comes in to play again when Marty’s right hand man Litvak (Michael Moshonov) confronts Gadi about the aforementioned woven thread bracelet that Charlie was wearing that supposedly confirms her dedication to Israel. It is not, as Gadi assumed, blue and gold but black and white. Has she turned? Despite the simple iconography of the bracelet this situation is far from black and white. As much as director Park may have wanted to avoid shades, they are here. Still, as Litvak notes wryly regarding the bracelet, “at least it’s on the right wrist”. For the first time in the entire mission he seems to be aligned with Gadi.

Charlie returns to her brown and taupe student disguise complete with ‘Abolish Apartheid’ badge and plastic explosive in her briefcase. We cannot read her at this juncture, and that is entirely intentional. The same as every other character presently in the story, her colours give nothing away. Swiftly our doubts are alleviated, however, as she hands the bomb over to Gadi, which is allowed to detonate in a controlled explosion as a ruse to draw out the real mastermind behind the scenes, Michel’s brother Khalil. Charlie is back in the red rollneck and black jeans when she is finally granted a meeting with Khalil (who it turns out she already met before at the training camp, though he was incognito). They bond, quickly, and Charlie becomes convinced that Khalil is falling in love with her. She wants to keep the fiction in motion. When they meet again for what is essentially a rendezvous in an English country farmhouse, conspicuous interior decorated red and blue, Khalil is wearing a blue rollneck sweater. It is very noticeable. He is not cold, but weak and powerless. Khalil may be suspicious but he is still putty in her hands. For their candlelit dinner Charlie changes into a green silky nightgown. Green here represents Charlie’s septic presence to Khalil. She will be the death of him.

Khalil is wily (well after they have had sex he suddenly becomes so anyway), yet is still passive in blue. He may have twigged that armed forces are surrounding the farmhouse, Charlie even admits as much, but there is nothing he can do to halt his fate. Gadi bursts in and shoots Khalil. Does he save Charlie’s life or just want Khalil dead? Perhaps the amount of bullets he fires into Khalil’s body (an entire clip) answers that question.

Charlie’s second to last outfit is, unsurprisingly, red; a red sleeveless dress worn as she recuperates in Israel. It’s not fiery, more romantic. However most interesting is Charlie’s final ensemble – a light blue shirt, as clear as the morning sky (markedly this scene does not take place in London) and notable for being a shade she has never worn before this moment. It is an optimistic blue for once; fresh like a new beginning.

Colour analysis is so subjective and in the case of this show, so block and clashing as to make solid interpretation problematic. Nonetheless it has been a worthwhile journey into the communication of costume design as a separate discourse. Whatever you might have made of the costumes, be they thought provoking or distracting, you certainly won’t be forgetting them in a hurry. The Little Drummer Girl is ripe for revisiting.

The Little Drummer Girl is currently available on BBC iPlayer.

© 2018 – 2019, Lord Christopher Laverty.