I love seeing the works of author John le Carré adapted for the screen. From Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to A Most Wanted Man to AMC’s The Night Manager, they’ve all been great. Does the latest, Our Kind of Traitor, follow suit?
Perry (Ewan McGregor), a poetry professor from London, is on holiday in Morocco with his lawyer wife, Gail (Naomie Harris). There’s been some infidelity on Perry’s part and they are trying to work things out. While at dinner one night, Gail has to leave to take care of something for work and Perry makes the acquaintance of Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a seemingly wealthy and fun-loving Russian businessman. After taking Perry to a debauched party, Dima invites him to tennis the next morning and his daughter’s birthday party later that night. At the birthday party, Dima reveals that he is a money launderer for the Russian Mafia and that he needs Perry’s help to cut a deal with British MI6 in order to get his family out. Dima’s boss, The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin), is preparing to consolidate his money into a shady bank in London and is eliminating Dima’s colleagues. Dima is next on the list and he wants out. Perry takes the flash drive Dima gives him and makes contact with Hector (Damian Lewis), an MI6 agent. Hector cannot convince his boss Billy (Mark Gatiss) to move forward with the investigation because the evidence Dima has provided is too vague. Hector proceeds anyway and Dima requests that Perry and Gail be at any meet they have, because they are the only ones he trusts. Perry and Gail then have to decide whether to help a man they barely know or stay out of it entirely. If they do the latter, though, Dima and his family will surely die.
Our Kind of Traitor is not the best John le Carré adaptation out there, but it is a very solid one. Director Susanna White has created a beautiful film—the cinematography is gorgeous—with a nice script from Hossein Amini. The issue is with the story itself. The main conceit of the film is absolutely preposterous, that MI6 would work with straight up civilians in order to accomplish this mission. At least in The Night Manager, Tom Hiddleston had some training. So, while that part stretches believability, you can at least take comfort in the fact that Perry and Gail behave like civilians. They make a lot of stupid mistakes, but you can chalk it up to the fact that they really don’t know what they’re doing. So, in a way, the conceit is actually quite brilliant in that regard. There is plenty of tension, though, as you’re left gasping waiting to see what will happen to Dima and his family as well as Perry and Gail. There is one scene in particular where one of Dima’s babysitters takes them to a bad part of town that is quite nice. They are literally sitting in a drug den and you’re on pins and needles (no pun intended) waiting to see if the babysitter is going to just kill them or if they’ll be attacked by an addict. However, the scene just kind of ends and we get back to the story after it’s shown that the babysitter can’t get any information out of Perry and Gail. This is a nice taut spy story, but there weren’t any real surprise twists—the film is really propelled by the tension and the performances.
McGregor does a really nice job as the everyman here. He gets tossed into a situation that is way over his head, but he sticks with it because he believes in doing the right thing. He’s an admirable character with some nice flaws and it’s good that the story doesn’t turn him into some kind of impromptu action hero. Harris is also great as Gail. Gail is thoroughly against getting involved, but Harris deftly shows how she wilts in the presence of Dima’s children. The film really belongs to Skarsgård, though. His performance is boisterous and brutal when it needs to be. He never lets you forget that while Dima is a happy family man, he is by no means a good guy. Lewis also delivers a great, measured performance here as Hector. He’s the consummate British spy in that while he does show passion in certain scenes, it’s all about the job for him and getting it done. Just a great, great job.
Overall, while Our Kind of Traitor doesn’t hit the heights of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or A Most Wanted Man, it is a solid spy film and better than most of the films parading around this summer. It’s not as much of a thinking man’s spy story as other le Carré adaptations, but it also never devolves into the ridiculousness of many of the James Bond films. See it.