A couple find themselves lured into a Russian oligarch’s plans to defect are soon positioned between the Russian Mafia and the British Secret Service, neither of whom they can trust.
It must be a lucky time to be a fan of the screen versions of John le Carré’s work, with ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ following hot on the heels of the acclaimed BBC TV series ‘The Night Manager’, and whilst I’d rank this as the weakest of the recent le Carré adaptations, it’s still a propulsive and enjoyable spy thriller. Adapted from one of le Carré’s recent novels, written in 2011, the influence of recent events weighs heavily with a firmer focus on government corruption and taking aim at the ‘elite’ such as bankers, politicians and senior officials. The film is primarily about a key player in the Russian mafia who wishes to defect to the United Kingdom, and the holidaying British couple who get caught up in his plans.
The film starts really well, laying out its premise and I particularly loved the opening sequences that introduce us to Dima, establishing his character through Stellan Skarsgård’s bullish charisma. Dima is the leading money launderer for the Russian mafia, and a change in leadership at the top level has him fearing for his and his family’s safety. This leads him to befriending a holidaying British couple through Perry (Ewan McGregor), on the pretence that they’ll help put him in touch with the British intelligence services. Disappointingly, this intriguing set up is ultimately better than the payoff, and ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ struggles to make Perry and Gail’s (Naomie Harris) decision to help Dima seem truly believable, and their transition from nervous people in the wrong place at the wrong time to willing associates is a little too smooth. Hossein Amini’s script does try to explain this, and he’s moderately successful in laying out Perry’s character and the factors that would lead him to be taken in by Dima. You can see Perry almost relishing the luxury and forbidden environment around Dima, yet still holding back and sensing something isn’t right, and it’s subtly played at the outset. Small details are revealed about Perry and Gail’s marriage, but Gail isn’t nearly as well developed as Perry and it’s even more unfathomable for her to become so heavily involved. It’s a classic example of characters behaving in a certain way because the plot demands it.
Despite this, I was along for the ride and I enjoyed the various trips across the globe even as the story becomes more and more implausible. The MI5 involvement is more classic le Carré and whilst Damian Lewis is a little too uptight as the lead agent assigned to the case, his character has believable motivations and we can understand his decisions. What I like most about le Carré’s work is its relatively restrained approach to spycraft, and whilst ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ succumbs to more of the spy movie staples than most of his adaptations, it’s still a film more focused on the process of this kind of work than the action. The film does stray from this towards the end and it loses a little steam as a result, with a conclusion that feels a little neater than necessary. Comparing it with the excellent Philip Seymour Hoffman starrer ‘A Most Wanted Man’ or ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, which both relied on restrained approaches with tense conversations favoured to action sequences, only serves to emphasise ‘Our Kind of Traitor’s weaknesses.
‘Our Kind of Traitor’ is an enjoyable spy thriller with a scene stealing Stellan Skarsgård performance at its heart, but it disappoints as the credibility of the narrative starts to strain and ultimately this is middle of the range as far as le Carré adaptations go.
Directed By: Susanna White
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Velibor Topic, Alicia von Rittberg, Mark Gatiss, Mark Stanley, Jeremy Northam, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Marek Oravec and Katia Elizarova