Our Kind of Traitor movie review: Promising le Carré spy thriller falls flat
This new le Carré thriller is fun for the most part
No matter who is directing them, there's a kind of stylish grimness that pervades all the films based on John le Carré novels. East battles west and secrets are traded by grubby men who cling to the shadows in stories steeped in wistful existential gloom. Sounds good to me, and this tenth movie directly inspired by the writer's work steadily treads that same successful path.
And though Our Kind of Traitor is set more or less in the present day, Mr le Carré is understandably attached to the comforting certainties of the Cold War period, and uses an oligarch to drag Russia into his story.
Many le Carré thrillers feature babes in the wood, hapless civilians unwittingly drawn into the dangerous world of espionage. In The Spy Who Came in from the Cold it was Leamas's girlfriend Nan, in The Tailor of Panama a hapless London suit-maker, and in Our Kind of Traitor it's a Scottish college professor whose marriage is on the rocks. Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) has come to Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) to try to repair their strained relationship.
Perry recently slept with one of his students, and Gail is slowly deciding whether or not to forgive him. They're dining out one night when they get seated beside a noisy and vulgar group of Russians. After Nan leaves to make a work call, Perry is befriended by the group's ringleader, a large and jovial gentleman by the name of Dima (Stellan Skarsgaard), who starts throwing the Chateau Pétrus around like there's no tomorrow, and then invites his new friend to a lavish party.
The two men hit it off and become tennis partners, but as he notes the large, tattooed and angry-looking gentlemen by whom Dima is constantly surrounded, Perry begins to suspect that Dima may be involved with the Russian mafia. As Perry and Gail are about to depart for London, Dima comes clean, admits he's a mob accountant and gives the professor a memory stick to be handed over to MI5. It contains the names of people who've been bribed by his oligarch boss, including some high-ranking British politicians, and is about to cause a world of trouble for everyone.
Damian Lewis, whose character work of late has included everything from a sleeper jihadist in Homeland to a vigorous and ruthless Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, plays Hector, a maverick British intelligence agent who's out to settle old scores. His mackintosh, sharp suits and heavy-framed glasses deliberately evoke the style of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer, and fittingly so, because this is a quintessentially British thriller, light on action, heavy on moral dilemmas, and nicely directed by Susanna White.
Stretching back to the late 1950s, British spy thrillers have always been grimmer and less flashy than their counterparts and, Bond aside of course, have tended to emphasise the squalid and morally compromised nature of intelligence work.
Grubbiest of all is Martin Ritt's Cold War masterpiece The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and while Our Kind of Traitor doesn't match that film in either quality or gloominess, it does carry the same mood of quiet pessimism and ethical angst.
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Stellan Skarsgaard does lots of the heavy lifting here, and brings great energy to his portrayal of the larger-than-life and surprisingly loyal Dima, whose primary concern turns out to be for his family rather than himself.
Ewan McGregor makes a very proficient Everyman, and his plucky bewilderment draws us into the story. Naomie Harris has great poise, and is very good too, but after a very promising and intriguing start, the film loses its lustre once Dima's subterfuge is discovered and everyone's forced to go on the run.
There's a TV movie tinniness to the film's rather pat denouement, but plenty to enjoy otherwise, and Damian Lewis's portrayal of the cagey spy Hector is note perfect.
Our Kind of Traitor (15A, 108mins)