OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) review
written by: Hosseini Amini (screenplay) and John le Carré (story)
produced by: Simon Cornwell, Stephen Cornwell and Gail Egan
directed by: Susanna White
rating: R (for violence, language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use)
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: July 1, 2016
With the recent success of BBC One/AMC’s mini-series adaptation of John LeCarre’s “The Night Manager”, it’s actually a perfect time to release yet another thriller based on one of the British espionage writer’s many novels. “Our Kind of Traitor” is based on his 201o book of the same name that deals less with spies and instead offers an update on that old average-decent-guy-gets-in-way-over-his-head formula that actors like James Stewart and Cary Grant became known for. It also includes another familiar trope, that of a fractured married couple who reconnect once they’re thrust into extraordinary and unexpected situations. Although there are recognizable genre tropes present in “Our Kind of Traitor”, it nevertheless offers some entertaining character work from at least two of its actors as well as some nice stops in European and African locations.
Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is a British poetry professor on a vacation in Marrakesh with his wife, Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris), a successful lawyer in London. Their marriage of ten years is fractured, due to his dalliances and her withdrawn coldness and he sees this trip as a way to hopefully reconnect and go back to the way things were. That’s not going so well though, especially since Gail had planned on getting some work done. While dining at a restaurant, Perry is invited for a few drinks by a boisterous and persuasive Russian man named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who was nearby with some friends and had noticed that Gail had left Perry to attend to a work call.
Reluctant at first, Perry is taken in by Dima, who we soon learn is a money laundering oligarch looking to break ties from the criminal underworld after a friend of his was recently disposed of (along with his family, save for two twin daughters) by the new leader of the Russian brotherhood (aka mafia), known as The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who is backed by those who are supposedly loyal to Dima. In order to ensure the safety of his family, Dima needs an unassuming outsider to help him with supplying key information to authorities that could incriminate The Prince and certain British officials.
He picks out Perry in that restaurant and it turns out the professor is a decent man who is baffled as to why he’s been chosen, but is won over by Dima’s charismatic. It could also be the fact that Dima knows how to throw parties with pretty girls (some on horseback indoors), rampant booze, free drugs and fireworks. Perry is also a bit of a people-pleaser, so when Dima hands him a memory stick with potent information, asking him to hand it over to MI6 when he arrives in London, he does. It seems odd that he does, but remember this is the kind of character trait we see in these kind of Hitchcockian spy thrillers – an honest, decent guy just trying to help gets pulled into a mess.
Until now, Perry has kept all this from Gail – her being the more level-headed of the two – until they’re both interrogated by British Intelligence government fixer, Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis), who would love to take down former colleague, Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam). We learn Aubrey disgraced Hector in the past, resulting in the imprisonment of his adult son and now, this intelligence from Dima could provide proof that Aubrey is one of many British officials who is working closely with The Prince.
This could be a huge money laundering sting (think Panama Papers) for Hector, who gets another colleague, Luke (Khalid Abdalla), to assist him, while lying that his superior, Billy Matlock (Mark Gatiss) has their back. Following through with Dima’s requests to solely work through Perry and Gail, Hector involves the two civilians, who only volunteer because Dima’s family is at risk. What follows is a series of meet-ups, and monitored negotiations in Paris, concluding in the Swiss Alps – some are smooth, while others detour into potentially life-threatening situations – as both Perry and Gail wind up deeper and deeper into a series of situations that are way over their head.
Like the aforementioned highly-acclaimed “The Night Manager” was directed by Susanne Bier, this film was also directed by a woman, Susanna White, who has spent most of her career directing British television (“Bleak House” and “Parade’s End”) as well as HBO shows (“Generation Kill”, “Boardwalk Empire”) and the Showtime hit (“Masters of Sex”). In her second feature-film since 2010’s “Nanny McPhee Returns”, White works with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (frequent collaborator of Lars Von Trier and Danny Boyle) and the editing team of Tariq Anwar (“The King’s Speech“) and Lucia Zucchetti (“The Queen”), and the filmmakers deliver a sharp and elegant color palette to the film, often relying on angled shots and views through review mirrors as certain characters are followed and monitored. Sometimes certain scenes are shot to accentuate an understandably claustrophobic feel to the environments, while there are sequences where the camera takes in lavish interiors/exteriors or picturesque landscapes. “Our Kind of Traitor” is a good-looking film, but where it falters is in the storytelling and characterization.
My bet is there’s more characterization going on in LeCarré’s novel. He’s a writer known for his detailed characters and dense plots, yet the plot here seems quite straightforward and familiar, while the characters suffer the same fate. Not having read the book, I can’t speak to how screenwriter Hosseini Amini (“Drive” and “Snow White and the Huntsman“) delineated from the source (which is to be expected), but I’m sure he did as most adaptations do, but there’s just a lack of threatening stakes for the characters.
We never really see what threat the antagonists pose except in an opening sequence, but after that’s done this Prince character and his entourage – consisting of bland goons played by actors who always seem to turn up in these spy movies (Alec Utgoff, Pawel Szajda and Velibor Topic, to name a few) – seemingly just glower and glare at our protagonists. There’s a bit more of a threat during its
“Straw Dogs” type ending, but by then we’re just hoping the whole thing is wrapping soon.
The other characters who are poorly written yet portrayed by talented actors, are the characters played by Harris and Lewis. I’ve really enjoyed Harris’ work in the last couple 007 movies, even fondly recall her work in some of those “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, but here she’s kind of relegated to the suspicious spouse. Gail is kind of the voice of reason, but it was really hard for me to see this character get on board with what she and Perry get sucked into. Harris eventually sells it, sure, it’s just that there’s not enough written for me to buy her character’s arc.
Then there’s Lewis, who’s portrayal of a smarmy, kind of smug Hector gradually becomes quite annoying. The tone of his voice even has this arrogant lilt that feels like it’s channeling veteran spy Pierce Brosnan, only without any charisma. I get it, Hector is probably meant to be a tightly-wound, obsessed individual, but he still winds up feeling extremely stock and one-dimensional. By the time, Amini does give him a little more humanity – he’s a father! he can cook! – it feels too little/too late.
Save for two engaging performances from McGregor and Skarsgård, “Our Kind of Traitor” would be a tough watch. McGregor may even be too above the average-looking guy, but he plays naive and decent so well here and as his character makes some bold choices, stepping out of his comfort zone, McGregor delivers it. One scene at the very end, where we watch as Perry is on the phone with his wife as he watches a sudden tragedy is just gold as White fastens the camera on McGregor’s reaction. It’s a potent scene.
At first, it seems like Skarsgård is swinging big – injecting 100% into a flamboyant character who has a tattooed torso that reads like a storybook and has no qualms about walking full monty in a spa. But the more time spent with Dima, the more respect and appreciation I had for Skarsgård (an actor I’ve always liked), who is obviously giving his all, but also conveys subtle nuances as the story develops that offer viewers a surprising amount of endearment. He could’ve been played like a stereotypical Bond villain or like any pompous suit, but Skarsgård finds humanity in a role that audiences would generally be conditioned to see as a straight-up antagonist. Not so with the way Hosseini’s writes him.
Despite the story’s particular familiarities, “Our Kind of Traitor” should be appreciated by anyone who’s enjoyed the acting talents of Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård and likes their espionage thrillers a bit more cerebral and dramatic – that is after all, signature LeCarré. If only there was something about some of the characters and overall story that stood out, felt a little more different or unique.