The work of John le Carré has proven a boon for the cinema – George Smiley appears frequently on our screens, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is often held up as one of the masterpieces of spy drama. He is an expert at building tension, and coming up with gripping plots that serve to confuse and excite. Our Kind of Traitor is one of the newest works in his canon, and although I can’t speak for the book, the film is not particularly good – it feels rather workmanlike in its execution, treading through a bunch of old clichés and never being very riveting.
A couple are on holiday in Marrakech, a break away to help ease some of the tension in their marriage. There, poetry professor Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) meets and befriends a Russian man called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it transpires is an oligarch and a high-profile money launderer for the Russian mafia. He asks Perry to deliver a memory stick full of incriminating evidence to an MI6 agent, Hector (Damian Lewis), regarding a high-ranking traitor in the British government. The couple are soon drawn further into the conspiracy, as they team up with Hector to help save Dima and his family from his vengeful organization and broker his defection to the UK.
Director Susanna White has an eye for striking visuals, as the opening sequence which sees one of the antagonists murder a Russian family in the snow attests. It turns to cliché a bit later on – the palette of orange and dark yellows that has come to denote thrillers is employed in full force – but it is evident that she is competent, even if the material is uninspiring.
Our actors here are a mixed bag. Damian Lewis brings his air of the establishment, stolid and a touch smarmy, and he is able in steering the plot through its more technical aspects. It is possible to read his portrayal as a bit bland throughout, up to the scene in which he confronts the government traitor and the gloves really come off. We very rarely see Skarsgård in any form of action role, and he is clearly relishing it, playing it the right side of hammy and being the only ounce of life present in the film whenever he is on-screen. When he is not about, you’re actively counting the seconds until he is back, and he is definitely the highlight of the picture.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of McGregor. He is forced into service due to Hector’s staffing cuts, but his presence on-screen makes you yearn for the government agents of days past to actually be helming the film. He isn’t very engaging, and his general air of gormless gullibility feels a plot device that is massively artificial, driving the plot forwards in absence of anything better. We’re meant to like him as an everyday man facing extraordinary circumstances, but he just feels dim. (Naomie Harris suffers even more than him – she gets little screen time, and we are encouraged to like her because of a mention of emotional baggage that is never unpacked.)
The mish-mash of actors are also poorly served by a plot that fails to showcase le Carré’s talent. The central intrigue lacks any turn of depth – our villains are obvious from the start, the plot is spelled out in lots of detail and never deviated from, and there is never a sense that our protagonists will not succeed. Gone is the cynicism of le Carré’s early work, replaced by an assemble-by-numbers spy thriller that doesn’t thrill.
For a man who originated such clever and cryptic plots, Our Kind of Traitor feels like a big misfire in the cinematic work of John le Carré – it is competently done, but it never feels any better than average, and strong performances by some of the cast are not enough to save it.
Director: Susanna White
Cast: Ewan McGregor (Perry Makepeace), Damian Lewis (Hector), Stellan Skarsgård (Dima), Naomie Harris (Gail Perkins), Mark Stanley (Ollie), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg)
Running Time: 107 Mins