I’ve always enjoyed spy thrillers, whether they’re set in the Cold War, from back in WWII, or even a reflection modern day tensions. KGB, GRU, MI6, CIA, even Interpol vs mobsters, it’s all an invitation to adventure a la James Bond, or Jason Bourne. Or, in Our Kind of Traitor, everyman college professor Perry (Ewan McGregor), who in this sly polished John Le Carré story, is befriended by Russian expat Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) while on holiday in Marrakesh. Perry’s wife Gail (Naomie Harris) has gone back to their room to work, so when Dima invites a somewhat bewildered Perry to come out to “a real Russian party” he goes, not knowing what to expect.
Dima, however, is more than he appears: he’s in charge of money laundering for the Russian mob and is convinced that his days are numbered and therefore, in the way of the Russian mob, so are the days of his family and the twin girls he’s adopted after their parents and older sister are brutally gunned down. He’s met his Englishman, Perry, but he needs a bargaining chip to convince British MI6 to relocate him and his family to England and safety. His golden ticket? A flash drive with transaction details of all the payouts the mob has issued to high ranking English government officials.
When Perry and Gail return to England, Perry gives the flash drive to the sly MI6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis), who analyzes the data and becomes Perry’s point person into the British Secret Service as he is pulled further and further into the chaos of trying to extract Dima and his family. But Hector has an agenda of his own, as we learn, and his motivation for working with Dima might not be simply to do the right thing or to clean up the British government of people who’ve accepted the mob’s bribe.
With a story that bounces around the world from Morocco to England to the Swiss Alps, Our Kind of Traitor is remarkably easy to follow for a Le Carré story, and that ends up being the greatest problem with the film: spy thriller fans have come to expect that actors in the story aren’t who they appear to be, that allegiances can be fluid, and that collateral damage, even the death of spouses, children and other innocents can be acceptable costs. Indeed, an outcome that will leave you in anguish for the injustice of the ending (as is the case in the far more tense A Most Wanted Man, based on a different John Le Carré novel) is fair game in the genre.
But I found myself watching Our Kind of Traitor waiting for this sort of switch, where one of the actors turns out to be the mob informant in the British Secret Service group, or the MI6 woman planted in the Russian mob, or even a politician who is completely focused on money, not on what’s best for the country. The original novel might have had this sort of twist, but this treatment by Hossein Amani (Drive, 47 Ronin) lacked that tension and therefore didn’t deliver a satisfying ending.
The production team did a very good job nonetheless, and the film is enjoyable, but in a Masterpiece Theater sort of way, where you watch very good actors in lovely settings perform a play, rather than the tense, hold-your-breath sort of tension that is the mark of the very best thrillers in the genre. Most of director Susanna White’s filmography involves episodic television, which could contribute to the problem, but whatever the cause, Our Kind of Traitor ends up a watchable and engaging Le Carré story that didn’t quite capture the brilliance of his writing.