'Our Kind of Traitor'
It’s a bit strange that there have been more cinematic adaptations of books by paranoid spy specialist John le Carré over the past decade than there were from the 1960s to the 1990s combined. On a certain level, the author’s novels are dated to Cold War politics, yet films like ‘The Constant Gardener’, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘A Most Wanted Man’, and now ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ seem to play better today than they did in the ’60s.
Maybe that’s because changing times have muted mainstream spy blockbusters to Jason Bourne and angsty James Bond? Perhaps it’s because the current political climate feels as murky and ugly as it did for le Carré in the ’60s? Or maybe the le Carré estate is just having a fire sale? Regardless, the dreary and oddly bureaucratic spy thrillers keep coming. ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is the latest and hardly the best of the current crop. However, it’s plenty of fun for those who enjoy such things.
Ewan McGregor stars as Perry Makepeace, a stuffy poetry professor on vacation abroad with his barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris). One night, he’s confronted by a garish and overwhelmingly sociable man named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who essentially strong-arms the lonely prof into a wild party night at a dangerous location. They hang out again the next night and Dima reveals that he’s a bookkeeper from the Russian Mob and has information regarding an upcoming scandalous deal that the British government might be interested in. He asks Perry to take a data key full of secret info back to the UK to hand over to a contact. The prof is then stopped at the airport by a dapper British spy (Damian Lewis) who explains how dire the situation has become and that the lives of Dima and his family are now in Perry’s hands. Perry and Gail suddenly find themselves the unwitting central figures in an international round of spy games. As you can imagine, things only get more tense and deadly from there.
As a Brit stereotype might say, that’s a cracking good premise for a thriller. It plays off a classical Hitchcockian wrong man/wrong time premise, wrapped up in political intrigue with a mystery that grows alongside the mounting danger. Director Susanna White (‘Nanny McPhee Returns’ and a variety of BBC series) along with ace digital cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (‘Slumdog Millionaire’) create a visual palate of garish colors, fast edits and odd compositions leaning on reflections and obstructions to create a woozy sense of unpredictability.
The movie works best in the first hour, where the viewers are as lost as their surrogate heroes. There’s a sense that everyone is diving into danger far over their heads, yet they feel morally obligated to at least try to help. McGregor and Harris prove to be ideal innocents with just enough troubled history to be excited by the illicit thrills. Lewis is surprisingly funny as an aggressively British gent, and Skarsgård steals the whole movie away as a figure as gregarious as his is nefarious. Tension boils up nicely and the twists aren’t overly telegraphed. It’s good stuff.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers can’t quite keep the tale bouncing along through to the finish line. As the story gets more sordid and violent, it also becomes increasingly generic. It’s disappointing when oddball character intrigue gives way to formulaic suspense and action. Just when things should peak with excitement, the movie starts to feel conventional. In theory, that would increase the commercial potential of this thriller, but quite frankly this brand of grown-up spy game isn’t exactly going to compete on the blockbuster marketplace.
It’s a shame the story doesn’t reach the dower and depressing depths of le Carré at his most uncompromising. However, ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ still manages to be ripping good fun for those who enjoy their thrills flavored by elegant British drama. Susanna White and Anthony Dod Mantle prove to be a strong enough team that this hopefully won’t be their last effort in the genre. They might even make a good fit for a certain never-ending UK spy franchise, if the producers decide on another radical reinvention.