While on holiday in Antigua, poetics lecturer Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his lawyer girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris) become embroiled with flamboyant Russian Mafia money launderer Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who is desperately seeking sanctuary in the UK from his murderous boss.
John Le Carré’s finely crafted espionage thrillers, many directors would tell you, provide weighty and pleasingly malleable material for the screen. In 2011, the grand-spy-daddy of all Le Carré’s novels, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, proved the ideal English-language debut for Tomas Alfredson, while just recently the Tom Hiddleston-led The Night Manager got BBC-audiences’ pulses racing under the smart guidance of Susanne Bier. Now, Susanna White (Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang) takes on a more modern Le Carré (published in 2010), though the author’s weight here results in something merely solid, rather than impressive.
Le Carré's weight here results in something merely solid, rather than impressive.
Our Kind Of Traitor is, in its defence, a different flavour of spy thriller, putting at its centre a ‘normal’ (though clearly well-heeled) holidaying couple who become drawn into a deadly, back-stabbing spy game, rather than Le Carré’s usual weary professionals. The problem is, as portrayed by Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris, Perry and Gail fail to fully engage or convince us, falling too quickly and easily into the plot’s machinations, with their emotional baggage (their holiday being an attempt to heal a suppurating wound in their relationship) feeling ultimately empty.
The strength of White’s film is instead found at it edges, with, on one side, Damian Lewis as stiff-backed but slippery MI6 man Hector, who with his thick-rimmed glasses and brown trenchcoat feels a true ’70s throwback; and on the other, Stellan Skarsgård as asylum-craving Russian money launderer Dima. Part threat, part victim, he’s a gold-ribbon-wrapped gift of a character for Skarsgård who revels in Dima’s blingy, diabolical side while deftly teasing out his sensitivities — ultimately, Dima is a caring father, just trying to spare his wife and children a hitman’s bullets.
White ensures it is a handsomely mounted film, too, allowing cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle free reign with his off-the-wall touches, planting his tiny spy cameras in unexpected places and boosting a climactic showdown in the French Alps with some gorgeously lush photography. You just can’t help wishing it spied a little harder.
A lesser entry in the LeCarré Cinematic Universe, though Damian Lewis and Stellan Skarsgård rescue it from complete blandness.