I’ve never read a John le Carré novel but, thanks to the many movies his writing has inspired, I feel like I know his work pretty well. His latest adaptation has everything I’ve come to associated with his name: a British spy thriller powered by pessimism and murky morality.
Our Kind of Traitor, an adaptation of the author’s 2010 novel, presumably takes its title from Russian mafia money launderer Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), whose treachery involves feeding sensitive information to British intelligence. Dima runs into Perry (Ewan McGregor), a good-natured poetry professor on holiday in Marrakech, and supplies him with wine, food and a memory stick containing said sensitive information. The plot, as you’d expect, thickens, taking in Perry’s wife Gail (Naomie Harris), a stuffy British Intelligence officer (Damian Lewis) and half the bench of British Parliament.
The stakes are pretty straightforward – Dima has data that implicates important British figures in mafia corruption and is facing down a likely death sentence – but, unfortunately, so is the story. Where a good le Carré yarn is an intricate maze through dark tunnels and mysterious motives, this is more of a back-of-a-cereal-box-pencil-maze type deal. Rather than offering up unexpected surprises, it tends to telegraph each move with enough forewarning to keep any suspense from accumulating. From what I can gather, most of this can be attributed to the source text, with screenwriter Hossein Amini – of, uh, Snow White and the Hunstman and 47 Ronin – contributing minimal flair as he adapts.
Thankfully, there’s more to Our Kind of Traitor than its story. The main selling point is the imaginative direction of Susanna White. With the assistance of Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, she finds a fitful fervency on screen lacking on the page. In particular, the way she plays with light is continually captivating. One moment, the light bleeds and smears like we’re peering through a rain-streaked window – like a digital version of Todd Haynes’ work in Carol – and the next, virulent yellows dominate the screen à la late-career Tony Scott.
There are even moments that look like they’ve been filmed from a Go-Pro shoved up against a laptop keyboard, reminiscent of – to keep the influences rolling – Blackhat. One scene in particular featured such stunning cinematography that I almost stood up and applauded. A fight between Perry and Gail is shot from outside the apartment, with Harris’s body framed in the shadow cast by McGregor on the window. That impressive – and emotionally purpose – image is given further shading when we rack focus to reveal that we’re watching from inside an M16 car covertly surveilling the couple.
That said, all this shiny cinematography sometimes feels like a conscious distraction from the simplicity of the story. Well, okay, simplicity is the wrong word, but you can’t help but expect something akin to complexity given the circumstances. Despite the talented cast, few of the characters are developed beyond sketches: Lewis is a hubristic, overly-arrogant agent; McGregor is a nice guy with a spark of chivalry; Grigoriy Dobrygin’s mafia boss is evil to the core. Harris should be the most interesting character, but focus keeps shifting away from her and her tenuous marriage to McGregor. Skarsgård, at least, is good value, radiating gregarious exuberance tempered by a subtle yet unmistakable darker side.
By the time the heavily-foreshadowed conclusion rolls around, it’s clear that Our Kind of Traitor is decidedly second-tier le Carré. Thankfully, that still ain’t half bad.