Despite its stellar cast, Our Kind of Traitor is neither an outright artistic success nor a sure-fire popcorn monster. Yet it has qualities to make it glow for lovers of cinema — including a backdrop that is utterly plausible in its currency, politically and emotionally.
In a lawless nightmare state deliberately modelled on Great Britain, all honour in public life has been degraded. The thieves, perverts, drug-dealers, people-traffickers, murderers, armed gangs and power-brokers collude with a silky, hedonistic elite to further debase normal life. They enforce the wolfsbane of their greed on a crushed populace. (Le Carré wrote in anger.)
The queasy relationship between British toffs and the post-Soviet Russian mafia is stripped bare. While there is violence, the pace tends to be mundane. Two lovers (McGregor and Harris) seek to mend a rift in their relations while on holiday in Morocco. They are entrapped by a Russian crime kingpin (Skarsgård) into taking a secret memory stick home to hand to British intelligence (capably embodied by Lewis as Hector).
The Russian (called Dima) fears for his life and wants asylum for his family in exchange for the names of the UK establishment figures who facilitate cross-border corruption and money-laundering. He picks the courier lovers (named Perry and Gail) almost at random. This is compelling — dirty money keeps the proletariat silent since their rulers are as corrupt and sleazy as their bankers and secret bank accounts. Private misery and public disgrace are entwined in a potent brew.
One knows Le Carré as a writer whose finest characters (usually lurking in one or another secret service) play a game of "find the traitor, find your soul". Think back to the world of the Circus, where the spymaster George Smiley — in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — makes it his mission to find who in MI6 is in reality a double agent, a tipster for the KGB at the height of the Cold War. The strength of the book comes from Smiley’s slow, almost detached probe of a man who betrays his country — until, almost inevitably, he finds his wife to be the mistress of the traitor.
Many readers feel that Le Carré slackened with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Where could a new enemy be found? Our Kind of Traitor is a form of answer: he is us. Le Carré is well enough served by the skills of the film-makers and a narrative congruent with how many now feel about the UK.
A problem is that the film has a cramped quality, like television — the stars often seem unprepared for their exchanges, and details are frequently slurred.
Filmed against a velvet sweep of beauty that takes in Moscow, Marrakesh, Paris, London, the French Alps and the sinuous countryside of Europe seen from speeding trains, a sinister element pervades the storyline. Importantly, we never mistake the players for props. Since the film begins with betrayal and mass murder, their features flow with fear: they are being hunted for their inner decency as well as for what they know.
Satiated by James Bond and Jason Bourne, the audience could well note the importance of family. The inner complexities of Dima (for all his tattooed entourage and strippers, he is humane) are pivotal. He loves his wife and children, and Perry and Gail come to love them as well. In the exciting climax, the lovers forge new respect for each other; the slimy crime lords and the crooked men in suits are pushed closer to their doom by an English lecturer (Perry), a barrister (Gail) and a Dostoyevskian figure (Dima), an amalgam of cruelty and charm.
Our Kind of Traitor
Directed by Susanna White.
Script: Hossein Amini, from John le Carré’s novel
Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Damien Lewis