Despite the coldness in tone under which many of his novels operate, author John le Carré is, to quote the vernacular of the world of Zoolander, “so hot right now.” After the commercial and critical success of the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film in 2011, there’s been a spike in interest in adapting the author’s work to both the big and small screens. The year 2014 saw his novel A Most Wanted Man turned into a film, giving us Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead role, while BBC/AMC co-production The Night Manager, led by Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, has provided one of 2016’s most talked about TV series. And now we have Our Kind of Traitor, a film that’s a little lighter on the espionage of those prior three adaptations, but by no means a stumbling block for the le Carré renaissance.
Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris) are a British couple going through something of a rough patch in their relationship. While holidaying in Morocco, in an attempt by Perry to recapture some of the old magic, the pair cross paths with a forceful though charismatic Russian named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who hones in on Perry in a restaurant one night. During the last few days of their trip, the couple are treated to various extravagances at Dima’s expense. On the final night, Dima slips Perry a USB stick, asking the university teacher to broker him sanctuary with the British intelligence services. It turns out that Dima is a long-time servant of organised crime; the “number one money launderer for the Russian mafia” in his own words. The new boss of the mafia wants him dead, and of interest to British intelligence is the information Dima has regarding a streak of corruption that stretches right into the heart of London.
Upon arrival at an airport back home, Perry immediately declares the USB stick and is given time with MI5 man Hector (Damian Lewis, who gradually reveals depths to a character that initially seems little more than a caricature blend of a stiff upper lip and a goofy voice). For personal reasons, Hector is particularly disgusted with corruption deep within the British elite, whom Dima’s information concerns, and so goes ahead with the brokering operation without official sanction or even a great deal of resources. Consequently, as part of Dima’s request within the contents of the USB drive, Perry and Gail end up much more involved with the extraction than more official channels would normally allow, forced to correspond in-person with Dima on European soil and then head on the run with the ‘traitor’ and his family when extraction plans inevitably hit a stumbling block.
A solidly constructed sophomore feature from director Susanna White, Our Kind of Traitor is a tight thriller that, while rarely excelling to any sort of transcendent heights, never really steps a foot wrong. Key to the film’s success are the anchoring forces of the gruff heart of Skarsgård’s Dima and McGregor’s reliable blend of inner strength behind an outer veil of meekness. Elsewhere, Anthony Dod Mantle’s green and yellow-heavy cinematography offers some distinction from other le Carré adaptations of late; giving the visuals a less chilly register than, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, despite operating in literally chillier settings like snowy mountaintops. Speaking of those mountaintops, a key violent set-piece that takes place there, as well as the general success with handling the movie’s tension, makes White seem like a strong contender to helm a future Bond film. Considering certain casting rumours regarding 007, perhaps Damian Lewis could join her.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.