Review: Our Kind of Traitor
This film adaptation of a 2010 John le Carré thriller arrives in UK cinemas with remarkably serendipitous timing. Our Kind of Traitor revolves around laundered money from Russian criminals flooding London with a senior politician greasing the wheels. In a week in which Prime Minister David Cameron was caught on camera calling Nigeria and Afghanistan ‘fantastically corrupt’, the film’s plot is an ironic reminder that our own house could be found in better order.
The transcontinental plot begins in Marrakech where British couple Perry and Gail (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) are on holiday. It is apparent that the relationship is in some kind of crisis, and when Perry is left alone in a restaurant he is befriended by a gregarious Russian Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) and invited to a wild party where ostentatious wealth is on display. Dime is the sort of guy who gives his teenage daughter a camel as a birthday present.
The meeting was not a pure accident. The Russian is a money man for a criminal organisation. Their new leader is moving billions into London and with the aid of a corrupt politician setting himself up as a legitimate bank. After a friend and his family are murdered Dima comes to believe that the old guard is being liquidated and he and his family are next.
Dima persuades Perry to take a data stick back to London and give it to “your MI-6”. Perry is a poetry professor and perhaps attracted to the excitement agrees. However, on arrival at customs he is interrogated by civil-servant-slash-spy Hector (Damian Lewis). He and Gail are pulled into further intrigue when Dima refuses to meet without Perry present. What neither Dima or Perry know is that Hector has his own agenda, and is working without the sanction of his bosses.
This is a slightly frustrating film that doesn’t quite click. Director Susanna White has only a Nanny McPhee sequel is her other film credit, but significant television experience – including the BBC’s excellent adaptation of Bleak House and David Simons’s post-The Wire mini series Generation Kill. As adapted by White and screenwriter Hossein Amini, best known for the brutal thriller Drive, Our Kind of Traitor is stranded somewhere between television and film.
Being a le Carré thriller, there is a lot of plot and a large cast of characters – too large for the film’s 108 minute running time. The cast is solid, but while McGregor and Skarsgård spark off each other, Damian Lewis’s clipped upper class spy feels like an underwritten part and his extensive scenes break the film’s rhythm. Ultimately the plot spends too much time switching between characters for them to be as engaging and impactful as they should be, and this isn’t helped by the fact that a major climactic action scene takes place mostly off screen. A more ruthless adaptation might have pruned back the spies and found a Hitchcockian thriller about an ordinary husband and wife being plunged into espionage and danger. With a film like North by Northwest Hitchcock proved that it wasn’t really necessary for the audience to figure out what was going on.
As an adaptation, Our Kind of Traitor bites off more than it can chew and becomes too diffuse to be exciting.
Directed by Susanna White
Written by Hossein Amini
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Naomie Harris, Damian Lewis