Little Drummer Girl, The (1984): George Roy Hill’s Misfire, Starring Diane Keaton (Miscast)

George Roy Hill, better known for his Westerns (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”) and comedies (“The Sting”), and screenwriter Loring Mandel, have made an ambitious, but ultimately ineffective and unsuccessful big screen version of John Le Carré’s best-selling novel, The Little Drummer Girl.
Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)
The tale is set in the early 1980s, when Israeli intelligence was still under the influence of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, and attempting to infiltrate Palestinian terrorist groups. To achieve this, Kurtz (Klaus Kinski), a Mossad operative, tries to enlist Charlie (Diane Keaton), a well-known actress known for her leftist views. The plan works when she falls in love with Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis), an undercover Israeli agent.
Globetrotting from the U.K. to Greece to Lebanon, Charlie is accepted by a terrorist cell as the lover of the leader’s recently deceased brother. As a result, the leader and main bomb maker, Khalil (Sami Frey), wants her to smuggle a bomb into Germany.
Refreshingly, the Palestinians are not depicted as one-dimensional mad men or terrorists. Their cause, and their long years of suffering in the refugee camps, is presented in a fair and balanced way, which makes Charlie’s ambiguity about the moral position of both sides believable.
The film captures all too faithfully the ambiguous, complex, and tortuous approach of Le Carre’s books, qualities that are easier to capture in literature and drama than visually.
In her first foray into the action-thriller genre, Diane Keaton, at the peak of her popularity (after winning an Oscar “Annie Hall” and appearing in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”) was miscast as Charlie, a right-wing actress recruited by Israeli intelligence in its fight against a top Palestinian terrorist.
Charlie is supposed to be a vessel, a person without qualities, a blank sheet who allows herself to be defined and reshaped by strangers. Keaton is too much of a movie star with an established image (and excess baggage) to carry over this part.
The Little Drummer Girl was both a critical and commercial failure, and the blame was unfairly attributed to Keaton’s weak, and inappropriate performance. Roy Hill’s direction was flawed, lacking the nuance and subtlety of the original novel.

Keaton sort of redeemed herself with her performance in Mrs. Soffel, a film based on the true story of a repressed prison warden’s wife who falls in love with a convicted murderer and arranges for his escape.

Coming across better, Kinski benefits from some sharply written, show-stealing scenes as the officer who masterminds the seduction of the initially reluctant Charlie, both mentally and physically.
The notions of character development and identity formations are interesting ideas, but the film is too verbose, with too much talk (not always intriguing), and not enough real drama or action.
Cast
Sami Frey
Michael Cristofer
David Suchet
Anna Massey
Thorley Walters
Running time: 130 Minutes