Director: Susanna White
Release Date: 20.05
Text: Elinor Tessin
It’s a good year to be a Le Carré-Fan. After years of mostly sporadic TV and cinema adaptations, we now have two coming up at the same time: ‘The Night Manager’, a BBC miniseries, and this movie, an adaptation of the 2010 novel ‘Our Kind Of Traitor’ (later this year, we might even get a new novel!).
The heroes of this story are Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor), a poet with no inspiration, and his girlfriend Gail (Naomi Harris), a successful lawyer. They are on holiday in Marrakech to salvage what’s left of their relationship; Perry cheated on Gail, but this is clearly not the only problem between them, or in his life.
Enter Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), a slightly suspicious but amiable Russian. He wastes no time in introducing Perry into his glamorous but also strange world, where doing cocaine together is the equivalent of small talk, Camels are appropriate birthday gifts and everyone is constantly afraid for their life (or should be). Dima needs Perry’s help. He’s a money launderer for the Russian mafia, but his work has become obsolete and apparently his bosses take the term ‘terminating employees’ a bit too literally; they already terminated one of his friends, and most of his family too. Dima wants Perry to contact MI6 for him; he’s ready to change sides.
The next hour and a half are a wild ride through Europe, through luxury estates, 5-star hotels and the occasional mountain cabin. Dima would do anything to save his wife and sulky teenage children; Hector (Damian Lewis), MI6 agent, would do almost anything to catch his Mafia bosses, and the corrupt British politicians they collude with. Perry would do anything, period. His willingness to unpromptedly put himself (and his girlfriend!) into any kind of danger seems suicidal at times. But at least he finally finds something to write about!
The movie skips over some pretty big plot holes to allow for Perry and Gail to stay on the scene – after providing contact with the MI6, the main justification for keeping them around is them providing emotional support to their new friends, Dima and his family; to be honest, if I enjoyed having someone around long-term, I’d probably make it a priority to get them out of the line of fire and into some bulletproof vests. Of course, little inconsistencies like this can be easily ignored if there is enough action going on in front of beautiful backdrops. Other than that, the adaptation manages to convey very accurately the urgency and scope of the original: even though the short running time prevents us from getting to know Dima or his Mafia colleagues very well, the threat always feels real, and you will come out of the cinema with a thorough distrust of politicians and bankers (if you didn’t have that already). Especially compared to ‘The Night Manager’, which trades in the danger and dimension of the novel in favor of a beautiful but bland 6 hour luxury resort commercial, ‘Our Kind Of Traitor’ succeeds in staying faithful to Le Carré.
I’d have a hard time criticizing anyone’s performance in this; Ewan McGregor is great as the clearly depressed Perry in the grip of a midlife crisis, and even manages to be a bit sleazy but still sympathetic. Naomie Harris is a bit too good for the thankless role of the exasperated girlfriend. Stellan Skarsgård has a great Russian accent, and also carefully navigates the path between dangerous Mafia guy and loving family father. Damian Lewis as MI6 agent Hector was perhaps the greatest surprise for me: you might know him from ‘Homeland’, where he portrays a different kind of spy. ‘Our Kind Of Traitor’ doesn’t really deal in heroes, and consequently Hector is not really just a good guy hunting bad guys, but instead a flawed man who is sometimes a little too willing to abandon human values, common sense and also the law to pursue his personal vendetta; in this movie, his objective still puts him mostly on the same side as our protagonists, but I can easily see him as the antihero or even villain of another story. That he is still the most trust-inspiring of the government representatives here probably says something about the paranoia of Le Carré’s world view.
One storyline was perhaps a little neglected – the main emotional draw of the movie is Dima’s fight for his own life and his family, and this works astonishingly well, considering he’s actually a criminal himself; but who is the real victim here? It’s probably not Dima, who must have been pretty accepting of Mafia methods until he suddenly found himself on the receiving side of them, and in this case it’s not the British people subject to corrupt politicians either – after all, the Mafia’s “blood money” they are trying to inject into London’s financial world is a welcome boost to the economy. But the story of that money, the lost lives behind it, and the illegal weapon trade and human trafficking that it enables, could have easily been a much bigger point. When it did eventually come up for a moment, I almost felt a little guilty for enjoying the glamour and suspense before.
But anyway – to accommodate a whole novel full of international crime syndicates and human corruption into a movie of 107 tense minutes, you have to prioritize. And actual real-life crime is maybe not as pretty to look at (and much harder to sell).
Definitely recommended for fans of Le Carré, and anyone else with a penchant for spy stories, glamorous holiday destinations and international conspiracies!