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 (2016)
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 fewer 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 start 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 insulting 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 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.