Our Kind of Traitor
In which a poetry teacher with a hitherto untapped capacity for derring-do takes up arms against a sea of Russian mobsters, and by opposing ends (some of) them. Our Kind of Traitor, the latest John Le Carré adaptation derives from of one of his later novels (first published in 2010), and one gets a sense that, the further the author strays from first-hand knowledge and experience, the less effective his yarn spinning becomes.
Certainly, tackling the War on Terror in A Most Wanted Man made for a well-mounted but rather passé picture. In contrast. The sophisticated arms dealer of The Night Manager proved highly effective and fertile ground, but that novel was penned more than two decades ago, which may help explain its relative verisimilitude. Our Kind of Traitor finds Le Carré exploring Russian thugs buying legitimacy via the keepers of the British establishment, but is propelled by the most unlikely of Hitchcockian everymen, consequently struggling to balance its serious-mindedness with a Man Who Knew Too Much/ North by Northwest “Who knew?” resourceful protagonist.
However, if this is a core weakness in the scenario, its servicing by director Susanna White (best known for her TV work, from BBC prestige adaptions such as Bleak House and Parade’s End to HBO’s Generation Kill and Boardwalk Empire) is always highly accomplished. She proves particularly adept at the subjective experience, from an early interlude with Ewan McGregor’s (poetics lecturer) Perry Makepeace in Marrakech, as he gets progressively more squiffy while attending a depraved party with the convivial Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), Russian Mafia’s Number One money launderer, to a later, edgy sequence in which Alec Utgoff’s henchman stops off with Perry and his girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris) at a block of rundown Parisian flats to the accompaniment of inexorably building unease.
Dima, out of desperation, has picked Perry to be his contact with British Intelligence, his objective being safe passage for himself and his family (mostly his family) in exchange for the lowdown on the mob money financing a newly-approved London bank, a bank that has the endorsement of an assortment of British politicians due to get paid handsomely for their trouble (their ill-gotten gains nestling comfortably in those obligatory Swiss accounts).
As ever, Le Carré’s great strength is capturing the machinations within the corridors of power, where everyone has their own agenda, trustworthiness is foreign territory, and corruption is rife, be it in ways large or small, to positive or negative ends; this doesn’t manifested as cynicism on the author’s part, it’s simply the way the world turns. We know Damien Lewis’ Hector is a good guy, but is his quest to bring down the lynch-pin of the scheme, MP Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), in what becomes an unsanctioned mission, endangers everyone involved. And can his immediate superior Matlock (Mark Gatiss, eschewing the usual RP delivery) be trusted?
Le Carré met the inspiration for Dima in Moscow two decades before penning the novel, but the actual chap doesn’t sound remotely as endearing as his fictional counterpart, and much more like one of the gangsters who surround him. Skarsgård, sporting a long, flowing mane courtesy of the makeup department, is clearly enjoying himself as Dima, an exuberant bear hug of a man treading a precarious line of deception. He effortlessly takes charge of every scene he’s in, be it flashing McGregor in a locker room (it used to be Ewan who did all the flashing), beating a henchman half to death in a men’s room, or putting young mob pretender-to-the-empire Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin, boasting a big bushy beard that precedes him) in his place before a room full of peers.
Lewis also commands the attention, even if he dresses Hector like he’s just stepped out of a Harry Palmer picture and offers an accent akin to Dickie Attenborough wrestling a trapped Fruit Pastille.
McGregor and Harris are less notable, at least in part because their characters are so thin. Altruistic to a fault, they just want to help because their hearts bleed for the kids. And because Perry feels a curious kinship for Dima. So they throw themselves into mortal peril (and onto Hector’s team to break Dima from the mob’s clutches) when the mission is in danger of falling apart. That Hector isn’t going by the rule book, and that Dima has earlier insisted on their presence, doesn’t make their embroilment any more believable.
There’s a problem too with McGregor in the lead role, in that he has long since ceased to surprise as an actor. I possibly have the same weakness in hoping for the best from him as with Richard E Grant; in both cases it’s borne of goodwill based on a couple of performances more than two decades ago, and neither has made much of an impression in anything since. Ewan being so unassuming, and Perry being so dauntless, makes for a tenuous combination; a character of unremitting chivalry, albeit with a barely mustered skeleton in the closet, and who turns out to have few qualms about picking off goons in the French alps on the first occasion he picks up a gun (okay, just the one goon, but I’m sure he’d have shot up more given half the chance).
Even given the stretch involved, Our Kind of Traitor proves absorbing for much of its duration, mainly thanks to White’s good work. Right up until it looks as if they’ve got away with getting Dima et famille away, until they haven’t. Which leads to an uninspired retreat to a shack in the Alps, and that old chestnut of a character making a phone call that brings the dogs running. By the looks of it, Hossein Amini (who also has adaptations of works by Patricia Highsmith Thomas Hardy, Henry James and Elmore Leonard to his name) could have done with being a little less faithful to the original text, but I’m guessing that won’t happen too much now the author’s offspring (through their production company The Ink Factory) are shepherding his works to the screen.
It’s unlikely that Our Kind of Traitor will satisfy anyone expecting another top-flight Le Carré in the wake of The Night Manager, although it’s definitely more audience-friendly than A Most Wanted Man. Still, the cottage industry of adaptations should keep ticking along nicely for the time being, just as long as there are enough successes like Manager and the Gary Oldman Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to balance the slightly less illustrious ones. I’m not sure The Ink Factory is best placed to steer their dad’s biopic to the screen, however; a little more distance from the central character might be in its best interests.