"The revolution doesn't just sit around and sunbathe, does it?"
The 1980s was definitely an age of best-selling novels being adapted into major motion pictures - with varying degrees of success. For every THE SHINING (1980) there's a FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC (1987). For every THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1986) there's a BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY (1988). For every THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP (1982) there's a trip to DUNE (1984). In other words, what happens when you yank the printed word from a reader's hands and splash it up on the big screen isn't always pretty. Or successful. George Roy Hill's boring 1984 adaptation of John Le Carre's 500-plus-page international bestseller THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL is no exception.
A woefully miscast Diane Keaton stars as Charlie, a pro-Palestine, American actress working on the London stage. While acting in a commercial shoot for Klaus Kinski's wine company (?!) she falls under the spell of Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis), a swarthy charmer she suspects is a Palestinian terrorist. Swept into his world of clandestine meetings, secret bouquets and masked speeches she discovers that it has all been a rouse to lure her into the ranks of Israeli operatives run by Martin Kurtz (the aforementioned Messr. Kinski)!
Turns out that the Israelis have captured Michel: Palestinian terrorist, brother of elusive bomb expert Khalil, and notorious ladykiller. (Literally. The Israeli agents tell Charlie that he sent one of his galpals on a flight with a suitcase full of boom-boom.) After giving Charlie a crash course in Michel 101 they blow him up and plant love letters and other evidence that will lead the Palestinians into thinking that Charlie is his lover and sympathetic to their cause. Which she was... earlier... until she caught a look at Joseph... looking all pensive and staring out windows.
Naturally, Kurtz's plan works (of course it does... it's Kinski!) and the Palestinians spirit Charlie to a horrible looking boot camp in Lebanon where she does some light cardio, assembles a rifle while blindfolded and leads her fellow guerillas in a rendition of "Downtown".
Hahahahaha... good times, good times.
You'll be hard pressed to care as whatever characterization, personality, intrigue and tension Le Carre's novel once possessed has been rung out of it by screenwriter Loring Mandel and director George Roy Hill, who delivers an uncharacteristically flat film that lacks any of the anarchic spark that fueled his best work.
Keaton – who seems completely out of her depth here – ping pongs between the flighty actress with a penchant for lying and a semi-pro spy whose hard-boiled line readings come off as unbelievable at best and laughable at worst. I spent most of the 130-minute running time wishing that the role had gone to someone who could have delivered the necessary blend of sex appeal and idealistic conviction the role requires. Think Susan Sarandon, Barbara Hershey, Jessica Harper or even Margot Kidder. Or, as my pal Bruce suggested, simply replace Keaton with a rock.
Keaton's not alone, though, as the usually charismatic Kinski delivers his lines in an over-caffeinated jibber-jabber frenzy (while stroking his hair) and Voyagis mopes around so much that I realized I liked him much better when I thought he was a filthy terrorist. Sami Frey, as the charming but deadly terrorist bomber Khalil, is the only character you wish would stick around. And he's a bomb making terrorist!!
Given the novel's length, complex storyline, vast array of characters and globe-hopping locations, one wonders if THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL wouldn't have been better suited to the then-popular 80s medium of the television mini-series. Spread over two or three nights the flick's storyline might have even made sense and scenes intended to build tension would have, you know, built tension.
As a longtime fan of both Hill and Kinski it surprised me how long I'd let THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL sit in its VHS big box cocoon on my office bookshelf. After watching it I made note to trust my gut more often.