Our Kind of Traitor provides plenty of agreeably tense entertainment.
Our Kind of Traitor, directed by Susanna White. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA, and West Newton Cinema.
By Paul Dervis
For the past fifty years, John le Carré novels have virtually cornered the market on ‘literary’ spy thrillers. The best adaptation of one of his books to film remains the first, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton (1965). Its stricken melancholy contradicted the lavish, somewhat campy James Bond style espionage flicks of the day. Since that brilliant beginning, filmmakers have gone back to le Carré for material again and again: The Looking Glass War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Little Drummer Girl, and The Constant Gardener just to name a few.
Our Kind of Traitor does not belong in the rarefied air of the celluloid above, but it is an arresting tale nonetheless. One fault is that it stretches plausibility beyond the breaking point (what thriller doesn’t anymore?). And then there is dealing with the challenge presented to the spy genre with the end of the Cold War. Once storylines focused on the trials and tribulations of double agents and the fate of national security. Now the yarns deal with more mundane issues, such as financial payoffs and corruption. And le Carré, in his early 80s, is not a master of the post-Snowden world of leaks. Fortunately, Our Kind of Traitor’s superior cast helps compensate for the low wattage.
Perry and Gail are in crisis, struggling to rebuild trust in a troubled marriage. Perry, a college professor who has had a dalliance with one of his students, is trying to make amends by taking his wife on a romantic holiday to Marrakesh. Judging from the opening scene (she’s just not ready to re-consummate the marriage), it isn’t working. Gail is a high-powered London lawyer, the primary breadwinner in their household; she’s no longer sure what she saw in Perry. They have a nasty spat at dinner and she leaves hubby alone at the restaurant. A rowdy table full of tattooed Russians ask Perry to join them and, being a polite, low-keyed Brit, he accepts.
But this isn’t a random band of Slavic thugs. Ring leader Dima is a former hit man for the Russian mob; now he’s a major money launderer in charge of payola for international heavyweights. Dima’s become expendable, and that puts both himself and his family in the crosshairs of his boss. So it is time to defect to England, but how to get the word out to the British Secret Service without alerting the henchmen who are following him?
Perry. A harmless little man. That’s how. And this where the narrative loses its connection with reality. The innocuous Perry agrees to take a computer memory stick, filled with incriminating info about lethal big shots, back to England and deliver it to the ‘right’ people. Of course, that thrusts both himself and his unwilling wife into the murderously murky corners of covert operations. We are asked to believe that they are sucked into this intrigue because of their sympathy for Dima’s children, who are on the hit list along with dad.
What follows is classic cloak and dagger material. We travel to Paris, Bonn, and a hideaway in Switzerland, the bad guys hot on Perry and Gail’s trail.
Director Susanna White (Boardwalk Empire, Nanny McPhee Returns) is well aware of the story’s inconsistencies, but she keeps things moving forward, never allowing us to dwell on the blemishes. And both Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris, as Perry and Gail, contribute considerable chemistry to the unconvincing goings-on. But the movie’s finest moments belong to Stellan Skarsgård (The Railway Man) as Dima. His baddie is a restless dynamo, filled with a charismatic passion and strength that dwarfs the magnetism of the other characters. Skarsgård pulls off the considerable feat of creating a compassionate portrait of a man who has lived a very wicked life.
Visually, the film is stunning, alternating scenes of a gloriously colourful world with glimpses of a bleakness dunked in inky shadows. A superior film would have fused the bright and the blighted, but Our Kind of Traitor provides plenty of agreeably tense entertainment.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.