They’ll come after you: Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

A lesser John le Carré adaptation that believes to be a smart espionage film but is unfortunately silly, predictable and a lame pile of clichés

Our Kind of Traitor


Di­rect­ed by Su­san­na White. Writ­ten by Hos­sein Ami­ni, based on “Our Kind of Trai­tor” by John le Car­ré. Star­ring Ewan Mc­Gre­gor, Stel­lan Skars­gård, Dami­an Lewis, Naomie Har­ris, Khalid Ab­dal­la, Veli­bor Top­ić, Ali­cia von Rit­tberg, Mark Gatiss, Grig­oriy Do­bry­gin and Pawel Sza­j­da.

John le Car­ré is a pro­lif­ic au­thor of es­pi­onage sto­ries. Since his first nov­el in 1961, he has writ­ten more than twen­ty oth­ers, and their suc­cess al­lowed him to leave Mi6 where he worked dur­ing the 1950s and 1960s so that he could live off his writ­ing. Many of his books have al­ready been adapt­ed to the screen, some of which yield­ed ex­cel­lent films like The Con­stant Gar­den­er (2005), Tin­ker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy (2011) and A Most Want­ed Man (2014), while oth­ers pro­duced more mediocre re­sults, like The Rus­sia House (1990) and The Tai­lor of Pana­ma (2001). Our Kind of Trai­tor, di­rect­ed by Su­san­na White (Nan­ny McPhee and the Big Bang), fits in with the lat­ter, as it be­lieves to be a smart es­pi­onage film but is un­for­tu­nate­ly just an­oth­er pile of clichés.

Adapt­ed by Hos­sein Ami­ni (The Two Faces of Jan­u­ary), the film fol­lows the well-known for­mu­la of the com­mon man caught in a web of in­ter­na­tion­al in­trigue. Le Car­ré is an ex­pert in the use of in­trigue to tack­le glob­al is­sues and ex­pose how fal­li­ble our West­ern democ­ra­cy is, be it the in­ter­na­tion­al war on ter­ror (A Most Want­ed Man), the pro­tec­tion of British trade in­ter­ests through the Pana­ma Canal Zone (The Tai­lor of Pana­ma) or un­eth­i­cal med­ical ex­per­i­men­ta­tion by phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies in African slums (The Con­stant Gar­den­er). Now, the is­sue of the day is pri­vate fi­nance, and its im­pact on British econ­o­my.

When uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­er Per­ry Make­piece (Ewan Mc­Gre­gor) and his bar­ris­ter wife Gail (Naomie Har­ris) cross paths with a charis­mat­ic Russ­ian named Dima (Stel­lan Skars­gård) on a hol­i­day in Mo­roc­co (an at­tempt to save their mar­riage af­ter Per­ry had sex with a stu­dent), they have no idea of the mess they are get­ting into. Dima is ac­tu­al­ly a mafia big shot who wants to de­fect af­ter the mur­der of an­oth­er Russ­ian oli­garch and his en­tire fam­i­ly, so he gives Per­ry a USB stick with in­for­ma­tion link­ing the Russ­ian mafia to British politi­cians and busi­ness­men and begs him to turn it over to the Mi6 in hopes of be­ing grant­ed asy­lum in Lon­don.

The chess pieces are now in place, and what we have is promis­ing ma­te­r­i­al for the kind of adult es­pi­onage thriller that le Car­ré is known for, with all the ac­tion and gad­gets of James Bond spy movies re­placed by the strat­e­gy of in­ter­nal af­fairs. That is, more in­tel­li­gence (in a broad­er sense of the word) and less chas­es or out­door thrills. If low-key is your thing, Le Carré’s style is al­ways re­fresh­ing, while the moral cen­ter of his nar­ra­tive — that of you putting your life at risk to help some­one that you don’t re­al­ly know — is es­pe­cial­ly com­pelling. But still, de­spite all that it has to of­fer in terms of ideas, Our Kind of Trai­tor is be­low par at best.

Be­fore any­thing else, let’s talk about the ele­phant in the room: I don’t think I have ever seen le Car­ré come up with such an ob­vi­ous name for a char­ac­ter. “Per­ry Make­piece” could have been “Per­ry Hero” or any­thing just as sil­ly. Like­wise, the couple’s mar­i­tal prob­lems are a cheap nar­ra­tive de­vice that per­haps looked well on pa­per but here comes off as forced and ar­ti­fi­cial. I don’t know ex­act­ly whose fault that is (I have nev­er read the nov­el), but Ami­ni shouldn’t be left un­pun­ished for hor­ren­dous lines such as “I’m pro­tect­ing you from your­self” and “The fam­i­ly is all he has,” as well as an aw­ful di­a­logue that takes place in a politician’s house.

To make mat­ters worse, White’s di­rec­tion turns the whole thing into what looks like an unin­spired tele­film full of clichés. In a cheesy open­ing se­quence, we see bal­let dancer Car­los Acos­ta sus­pend­ed in the air in slow mo­tion, in­ter­cut with scenes of snow to the sound of a melan­choly Span­ish gui­tar. Then, there is mur­der in the for­est, and blood stains the white snow in solemn fash­ion. White is like an am­a­teur, try­ing every trick in her bag to ap­pear clever, yet while she does man­age to cre­ate some mo­ments of gen­uine ten­sion, the way she tries to ma­nip­u­late the au­di­ence is just way too ob­vi­ous.

In a cast full of tal­ent­ed ac­tors, Ewan Mc­Gre­gor may look more hand­some than ever be­fore, but he doesn’t have enough charis­ma to com­pen­sate for the character’s lack of per­son­al­i­ty. First of all, Per­ry is not very bright. He gets into stu­pid fights at least twice, and it is hard to be­lieve that he wouldn’t be shot in the face right away. “Why did you choose me?,” he asks Dima at a cer­tain mo­ment. We won­der the same. But even more ir­ri­tat­ing is see­ing his bla­tant stu­pid­i­ty be­ing un­der­stood as gen­eros­i­ty by Gail — who is also a pa­per-thin char­ac­ter whose mo­ti­va­tions be­come mud­dy lat­er on with her sud­den de­ci­sion to stay and help.

And in the sec­ond half of Our Kind of Trai­tor, things starts to go astray into the realm of com­plete over-the-top silli­ness. We get to have a ridicu­lous “ex­fil­tra­tion” scene from a toi­let staged with the in­com­pe­tence of some­one who doesn’t mind to in­sult our in­tel­li­gence. To top that, there is a last-minute rev­e­la­tion about a preg­nan­cy and a cer­tain boyfriend in­volved with the Rus­sians, all wor­thy of a cheap soap-opera. I don’t know if these nar­ra­tive el­e­ments are present in le Carré’s nov­el, but if that is the case, I am sur­prised that he would con­sid­er re­sort­ing to this sort of stu­pid turn of events only to have a big James Bond cli­max in the end.

With bu­reau­crat­ic edit­ing that has its mo­ments (like in the ten­nis game) and a clichéd cin­e­matog­ra­phy that is some­times in­spired with its use of green, soft fo­cus and bokeh, Our Kind of Trai­tor is sil­ly and pre­dictable but does have its mer­its. The raw ma­te­r­i­al is good old le Car­ré, which makes it at least worth watch­ing. It is just a ter­ri­ble pity, though, that the nar­ra­tive made from it is so weak and White’s di­rec­tion al­most ru­ins it.

July 26, 2016


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