'Our Kind of Traitor': Film Review

High-toned but ho-hum.
5/13/2016

Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris star as a couple mixed up with Stellan Skarsgard's Russian mafioso in this adaptation of John Le Carre's thriller.

With the TV adaptation of novelist John Le Carre’s The Night Manager drawing attention in the U.S. after its successful U.K. run, it would seem to be an especially fortuitous time for distributors on both sides of the pond to be releasing Our Kind of Traitor, at least from a marketing point of view. What’s more, with so many effects-driven blockbusters about in this late-spring, early-summer window, the pic could profitably soak up members of the older, upscale demographic whose literary tastes stretch beyond comic books.

But Traitor suffers somewhat in comparison with Night Manager: Feature length doesn’t always suit the longform, dense storytelling of Le Carre’s work. Director Susanna White, whose varied résumé includes some very fine TV (Parade’s End, Bleak House, Jane Eyre) and the larkish Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, and the ever-distinctive d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle (The Celebration, 28 Days Later, Rush) work hard to compensate with stylish, jet-set-sexy cinematography. Nevertheless, although engaging enough to hold interest, the just slightly off casting of Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard as, respectively, an academic and a Russian money launderer caught up in MI6 shenanigans dampens plausibility. Ultimately, it’s a middling effort as Le Carre adaptations go, better than The Tailor of Panama (2001) or the uneven A Most Wanted Man (2014), but not in the same class as the 2011 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, let alone that last book’s immortal TV adaptation from the Cold War glory days.

The screenplay by Hossein Amini, a writer who has done both literary adaptations (Jude, Wings of a Dove, The Two Faces of January) and offbeat action (Drive, Snow White and the Huntsman), only dickers moderately with the original novel. Most of the major changes presumably stemmed from decisions to cast younger names (such as Damian Lewis, playing a character who’s much older in the book) or the need to take advantage of finance incentives for using certain locations, like Morocco, where the opening scenes are set. Either way, the movie still functions as a travelogue of picturesque settings, some just gritty enough to appease viewers who prefer to think of themselves as richer in cultural capital than mere tourists. The milieu and vibe is halfway between a spread in Conde Nast Traveler and a Bourne movie.

After an opening prologue that contrasts the high-culture world of the Bolshoi Ballet (with a cameo from dancer Carlos Acosta) with a brutal, Mafia-ordered slaying of a family of three in the snow, the action cuts to a fancy resort near Marrakech. Academic Perry (McGregor) and his lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) are trying to mend their relationship after Perry’s affair with a student. When Gail is called away to make a conference call, Perry lets himself be tempted by an invitation from wealthy Russian Dima (Skarsgard, affably hammy, bad at the accent) to spend the night partying in the mountains, queuing up opportunities for Dod Mantle to bust out some glassy reflections, electric colors, variable focus shots and light flares to suggest hedonistic wooziness.

The two men bond further the next day over a game of tennis, and Gail gets to know Dima’s wife Tamara (Saskia Reeves) and the various children in their entourage. But soon it becomes clear that Dima has befriended the couple for a particular purpose: He wants them to help negotiate his escape from the clutches of the Russian mob, for whom he works. It turns out that the dead-eyed oligarch met in the prologue (Grigoriy Dobrygin), known only as the Prince, and his underlings will kill Dima and everyone in his family, just as they did with the brood in the opening scenes, unless Perry and Gail can persuade the British government to help. Dima’s only bargaining chip is his promise to provide hard proof that a British MP (Jeremy Northam) is being paid off by the Russians and abusing his influence to help them launder dirty money.

At Heathrow, Gail and Perry meet MI6 handler Hector Meredith (Lewis, rocking a fantastic pair of hornrims that perfectly suggest his character’s eccentric bookishness), who is perhaps just a little too keen to help and persuade the two of them to help patriate Dima to the U.K. Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner) and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) round out the cast as Meredith’s fellow spies, and while they make the most of their screen time, both feel seriously underutilized, as are Reeves, Northam and, to be honest, Harris, who spends most of the rest of the film scowling seriously or babysitting the kids while McGregor and Skarsgard stalk down streets and sneak around hotels.

This is where even a fairly responsible, well-intentioned feature adaptation like this will suffer in comparison with a TV series. With so much backstory to get through and gobs of explication to shoehorn into the dialogue, there never seems to be enough time to explain basic motivations persuasively. Many might come away wondering exactly why Perry would want to trade in lecturing on The Waste Land (he’s supposed to be a professor of poetics, a cute touch) in a brightly lit lecture hall for risking his life for a man he barely knows. Is the chance to earn air miles and pick up some duty-free really that tempting?

White does make some interesting choices to go for a quieter tone where another director might have elected to milk it with big gestures and loud noises. A key moment involves an explosion far in the distance, barely heard on the soundtrack, but the loss is as significant as the fall of Icarus, as in the famous Brueghel painting on the same subject, celebrated in Auden’s poem "Musee des Beaux Arts." Indeed, what’s best about the film is the way it evokes the sense of momentous power struggles, political shifts and tragic events happening just out of earshot or on the edge of the narrative while others just go about their daily lives, how “the ploughman may/ Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/ But for him it was not an important failure.”

Production companies: A Studiocanal and Film4 presentation in association with Anton Capital Entertainment, Amazon Prime Instant Video of an Ink Factory production in association with Potboiler productions
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Jeremy Northam, Khalid Abdalla, Mark Gatiss, Saskia Reeves, Alicia von Rittberg, Alec Atgoff, Mark Stanley, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Marek Oravec, Velibor Topic, Jana Perez
Director: Susanna White
Screenwriter: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by John Le Carre

Producers: Gail Egan, Stephen Cornwell, Simon Cornwell
Executive producers: John le Carre, Tessa Ross, Sam Lavender, Olivier Courson, Ron Halpern, Jenny Borgars
Co-producer: Jane Frazer
Director of photography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood  
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Tariq Anwar, Lucia Zucchetti
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting: Lucy Bevan

Not rated, 108 minutes

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