Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Susanna White
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Jeremy Northam, Matt Gattis, Khalid Abdalla, Alicia Von Rittberg, Saskia Reeves, Alec Utgoff, Dolya Gavanski, Pawel Szajda, Velibor Topic, Marek Oravec.
John Le Carre is the modern master of spy thrillers. A former intelligence agent himself, he knows the territory and his novels are infused with authenticity and detail about spy craft, the morally ambiguous and murky world of international intrigue where nothing is ever black or white. Le Carre’s novels are far cry from the action oriented Bond or Bourne franchises, and they offer up a more cynical take on the world of international espionage and the machinations of MI6. They deal with real, complex characters and explore the moral choices they make in a dangerous world where loyalties are uncertain and life is cheap. They are often downbeat in tone, and often suffused with a real sense of cynicism and disillusionment, where there are no clear winners.
His spy thrillers also follow two tangible threads – there is the spy versus spy thriller where cynical and world weary spies track down traitors and deal with their sense of disillusionment – the classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold through to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the recent A Most Wanted Man, etc – or else they follow the story of an innocent caught up in the world of international intrigue and the machinations of spy organizations – The Little Drummer Girl, The Tailor Of Panama, the Oscar winning The Constant Gardener, etc. Written in 2010, Our Kind Of Traitor is Le Carre’s 22nd novel, and it falls into the latter camp.
In Our Kind Of Traitor mild mannered poetry professor Perry (played by Ewan McGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris, from Skyfall, etc) are holidaying in Morocco trying to repair their marriage when they meet the gregarious and charismatic Russian Dima (played by Stellan Skarsgard, replacing Ralph Fiennes). He invites the couple to spend a couple of relaxing days with him and his family. But Dima also has a darker secret. He is an accountant with the Russian Mafia, and he wants out. But the Mafia are unforgiving and it is not easy to escape their clutches or the viciousness of their retribution.
The Russian Mafia is trying to open a legitimate banking enterprise in London’s financial district with the help of some corrupt but powerful elements of the establishment, including Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam). Dima fears that the new head of the organization Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is going to kill him and his family after he signs some bank transfer documents. He convinces Perry to take a USB back to England and hand it over to the intelligence services. He offers to identify the various illegal account holders who are laundering dirty money through London’s banking system in exchange for getting his family safely out of Russia.
The couple have to deal with MI6 agent Hector (Homeland’s Damian Lewis), who has to justify his dealing with his more pragmatic superiors who want something in return for their permission to let the operation proceed. Hector is a man of principle, but he also has his own agenda as Longrigg is his former boss. Reluctantly, Perry agrees to help Dima and his family, despite the obvious risks. And Hector is unable to guarantee their safety either. Thus begins a tense game of cat and mouse, with Perry and Dima in the middle.
At the heart of the film is the relationship that develops between Perry and Dima. In the end Perry has to make a choice about whether he’s going to risk his own situation and that of his wife to help another man’s family. It involves him taking a moral stance against what the British government is doing, and what the establishment is doing in allowing dirty laundered money from the Russian Mafia to come in to the city.
This makes for an edge of your seat thriller that moves towards a strong climax and there is a palpable sense of rising tension throughout. There are a couple of twists along the way as well. The novel was adapted for the screen by screenwriter Hossein Amini, who has written films like The Two Faces Of January and Drive. The action moves at a fair pace from a murder in the snow in Russia to the heat of Morocco, to England, to Paris, to Switzerland and to a climax in the snow covered Swiss Alps.
The director is the Emmy-nominated Susanna White, who comes from a background in television having worked on notable productions like Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Generation Kill and also movies like Nanny McPhee Returns. White has always been a fan of Le Carre’s novels, but she was drawn to Our Kind Of Traitor by its cinematic aspect and its contemporary themes. Coincidentally, with Our Kind Of Traitor, she became the second female to direct a Le Carre adaptation following Susanna Bier’s work on The Night Manager, which was made for television.
The film moves through a number of exotic locations, and White collaborated closely with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who has worked with the likes of Danny Boyle and Ron Howard) on the look of the film. As usual his work behind the camera is superb and he gives the film a glossy visual style.
Skarsgard makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Dima, who just wants to protect his family, and he tinges his brash performance with a hint of vulnerability and desperation even as he chews the scenery. Lewis is also very good with an understated performance as the quietly spoken Hector, who is not afraid to work around the system to achieve his aim, and he brings a hint of ruthlessness to the role. McGregor brings an everyman quality to his performance as Perry, an academic out of his depth in the world of espionage and violence. Harris is not given a lot to do in an underwritten role as Gail, and there is little chemistry between her and McGregor. There is much more chemistry and vitality in the relationship between McGregor and Skarsgard.
Our Kind Of Traitor is a tense character driven thriller, which deals with a number of complex moral issues, including global politics, international finance, and the power and wealth of the Russian Mafia. And while not the best adaptation of Le Carre, it still makes for an intriguing night at the cinema.