Florence Pugh’s voice is magnetic. It registers low, wrapping around your eardrum like silk, but with a steely, anchoring note. It’s the voice of someone who knows what they want — projecting confidence, allure and mystery, while also letting your know that its owner will kick your ass if you cross her. It’s a movie star voice, fit for a performer who owns the screen even alongside powerhouse co-stars.
At just 22 years old, the British-born actress is poised for her very own Saoirse Ronan moment: she’s about to be in everything, and we’re all going to have to learn to pronounce her name. (As far as I can tell, it’s P-ew, as in Pepe le Pew).
After garnering praise for her intensely vibrant portrayal of a young woman unhappily married to an older man in 2017’s Lady Macbeth, (not the Shakespeare one — this adaptation is based on the 19th century novel by Nikolai Leskov), and a commanding performance in Netflix’s Outlaw King, Pugh hits the small screen tonight in the first two-hour installment of AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl. And it might be her best role yet.
Set across the backdrop of the late 1970s, and based on John le Carré 's spy thriller of the same name, the show casts Pugh as Charlie Ross, an actress whose skill and soft-spot for leftist causes gets her recruited by the Israeli intelligence service for a secret mission.
Pugh’s forte is taking roles that could easily veer into wide-eyed ingenue territory and giving them bite. As Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce’s (Chris Pine) wife in Outlaw King, she injected poise, dignity and boldness to a character who might have blandly, lovingly just supported her husband in any other medieval biopic. Her scenes with Chris Pine crackle with chemistry, and her determination and single-minded pursuit of a cause give the illusion that she’s a lot older than she actually is. (Like many young actresses, Pugh often gets cast as a love interest to older men. But somehow, it never feels as though there’s a power imbalance, probably because she seems so self-composed, and could probably eat them alive if she chose to.)
In Little Drummer Girl, her Charlie is layered, a complex mix of lies and half-truths that conceal a deeper vulnerability. When she first meets handsome operative Gabi Becker (Alexander Skarsgård) on a beach in Greece, she’s not immediately enthralled as are several others in her entourage. He has to work for her attention, just as she’s playing her own game with him. It’s that ability to maneuver all sides that makes her a prime candidate for Becker’s superior, Martin Kurtz’s (Michael Shannon) plan to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell operating out of Germany.
Charlie approaches spying the same way she does acting: this is just another, more immersive performance. Her job is to pretend to have been romantically involved with one of the terrorist leaders in order to gain the trust of his family and collaborators. Gadi trains herin fascinating sequences that blend reality and fantasy — in one shot, she’s kissing Gadi, in another, she’s in the alternate universe of their shared fiction, kissing the man she’s lying about loving. As the lines get blurred emotionally, Pugh gives off a frenzied sense of someone on the brink of self-implosion.
It’s a treat for viewers who get to watch Pugh lose herself within a role, even as the show itself starts to feel like a slog. Still, she’s captivating in a way that will make you keep at it, and the payoff is worth it. (And I haven’t even gotten to the part where my girl rocks a canary yellow 1970s maxi-dress that would make a mere ordinary human look like Big Bird. )
The six-part series will air over three nights, starting at 9 pm EST on AMC. (Note that it’s a great Thanksgiving conversation starter if you happen to be sitting next to a dad, or an uncle — although less so if your family is divided on the Israeli-Palestinian question. In that case, avoid, avoid, avoid.) But if you find yourself in Pugh withdrawal by the end of it, relax. There’s lots more to come.
2019 is bringing big things for the actress, who will be starring in Stephen Merchant’s Fighting With My Family, alongside Dwayne Johnson and Game of Thrones’ Lena Heady. She’ll also appear in Ari Aster’s horror follow-up to Hereditary, called Midsommar, and most importantly, is joining the best cast in the world, Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, as Amy March. (Check out the first still from the film here, and tell me that doesn’t fulfill all your casting dreams.)
Welcome to the Florence Pugh Appreciation Society.