John le Carré is a writer who has seen his work adapted countless times for both television and the big screen. Some have been stellar and became very popular, like the most recent version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Pierce Brosnan leading The Tailor of Panama during his Bond days. Others, like Fernando Meirelles’ English language debut adaptation of The Constant Gardener or one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last roles, A Most Wanted Man, fell a bit under the radar, not getting the public acclaim they deserved, now largely forgotten. The new adaptation of his 2010 book Our Kind Of Traitor is another one that will fall under the same category as those last two mentioned films but it won’t be a huge cinema crime as the film kind of lands in a bit of a mediocrity in le Carre’s later writing. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t good.
The film is led by Susanna White, who takes on her second feature after the 2010 family sequel Nanny McPhee Returns, a movie with subject matter and tone far removed from this thriller. Teaming with Drive writer Hossain Amini, the two would craft an interesting little fish out of water story that landed in the writer’s lap out of nowhere and sort of unconventionally. As it turns out both Amini and le Carre share the same agent and the screenwriter was able to craft the move directly from the author’s unpublished manuscript. Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard would be brought on to star in the film, two veteran character actors who play very well off each other.
McGregor plays Perry Makepeace, a university teacher on vacation in Marrakesh with his high profile lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris). As soon as our characters are introduced, we see that there are some deep seeded issues within their marriage causing a bit of an uncomfortable divide. While out for dinner they notice a group of celebrating Russians who eventually call Perry over when Gail receives an important work call. The one that called him over introduces himself as Dima (Skarsgard) and, although nervous of this mafia looking Russian, Perry goes with him to a party. Over the next few days, Dima and Perry become closer friends resulting in the Russian confiding something dangerously important to his new friend.
As predicted, Dima is in the employ of the Vory as a money launderer. He wants to turn evidence over to the British government in order to secure the safety of his wife and three kids but needs Perry to bring a flash drive of information back to the United Kingdom. Through doing this drop off for Dima, Perry finds himself thrust deep into the operation led by MI5 agent Hector (Damien Lewis), who doesn’t seem to be on the level himself. As it appears, the agent is pursuing his own brand of justice in hopes of tearing corruption out of the highest level of the British government and maybe without the sanction to do so.
After a mind game filled film like Tomas Alfredsson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Our Kind Of Traitor is going to seem like a drier piece of toast that just doesn’t have the same deep and rich flavor to it. The twists and turns might be a bit more predictable than we are used to with a storyteller like le Carre but where this film succeeds is definitely in it’s acting. Ewan does a fine job as always as our lead character, exuding that charm we have grown to love from the dashing Scotsman, but where this film excels is Stellan Skarsgard’s performance, who seems to chew the scenery every second he’s on screen. So often relegated to supporting roles, it’s only so often that he shows his brilliance as a heavily pivotal character and Our Kind Of Traitor is definitely a showcasing of his talents. That Russian accent flows out of his mouth like a veteran character actor relishing his opportunity to have fun.
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle makes this film an interesting experience to look at, giving us an almost voyeur perspective at times. The camera, here and there, seems to operate as a sort of spy in the bushes, picking up the conversations and actions we otherwise wouldn’t be privy to and maybe falsely incriminating as a misdirection. Elements of Mantle’s past work with Danny Boyle, like 127 Hours, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won an Academy Award, give the film a lithe and kinetic feel that is only betrayed by the slower moving parts of the film. On the production side of the film, his piece of Our Kind Of Traitor is the best part.
Where the acting is stellar and the look of the film is enticing, the film is just good and not great. The intrigue of the situations never feels like we’re on the edge of our seat at any point of the film and it does feel like we’re getting too many nods at things to come. By the time some of the reveals are made, the audience has deduced exactly what’s going to happen and we kind of expect a bit more from a John le Carre film. Susanna White has made a rather seamless shift from family films to a mystery genre and has shown a lot of growth that will serve her well in the future. This is one of those movies that feel like a nice snack rather than a really fulfilling meal. You’ll probably need two boxes of popcorn for this one which I give a three out of five.