Film Review: Our Kind of Traitor

A predictable plot and a somewhat reticent directorial style work together to diminish the thrills in this new post-Cold War thriller from John le Carré.
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Perry and Gail (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) are no different than many other childless young professional couples: When their 10-year relationship encounters serious problems, they try to fix them by taking a romantic getaway. Thus, we first meet the British couple—he’s a professor and she’s a successful barrister—while they’re on holiday in Marrakech, Morocco, but their time there is proving to be anything but romantic. Gail, it seems, cannot forgive or forget Perry’s recent affair, and he’s not at all happy when she ditches an exotic dinner to take a business call. Left alone in the restaurant to fend for himself, Perry becomes intrigued by a group of rowdy Russians—led by the boisterous Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a Russian bear of a man who seems equally and inexplicably fascinated by Perry and invites him to join the party.

In true le Carré style, this invitation is neither accidental nor offhand; Dima zeroes in on Perry like a drone finding its target, and he unexpectedly insists that “the professor” and his wife come to a tennis party the next morning at his rented mansion. Although Gail is reluctant, Perry talks her into accompanying him, and while he engages in an exhilarating game of tennis with Dima, she bonds with his wife, Tamara (Saskia Reeves, in a truly thankless role), and the rest of their extended clan—including two little girls who’ve come under Dima’s protection since their parents and older sister were killed, supposedly on orders of “the Prince,” the new head of the Russian mafia.

Actually, we witnessed this family’s brutal slaughter at the very beginning of Our Kind of Traitor: While innocently driving home from a celebratory event, the three are set upon and gunned down—with the blood staining their fancy clothes, the limo, and the pristine snow all around. We assume that this graphic opening is meant to build tension and prepare us to expect more brutality, more shockers and, yes, more thrills. But, alas, there’s only one big shocker and it comes toward the end of the film, and it’shandled so delicately—so lacking in tension—it might as well mark the end of a children’s fairytale. It would be like saying to the wee ones, “And then it all went boom!”

At any rate, unsurprisingly, Perry and Gail get sucked into Dima’s orbit and quickly learn their new friend is a successful and well-known money-launderer for the Russian mafia. After the execution of his closest associate and his family (see above), Dima decides to defect to the U.K., and in order to guarantee his family’s protection, he’s willing to pass on some information that might implicate some higher-ups in the British government.  This part of the plot hatches one night at a party—a sordid gathering of depraved Russian oligarchs—when Dima pulls Perry aside and asks him to take a computer memory stick back to England and turn it over to MI6. For some reason, Perry agrees, and on arrival at Heathrow he indeed makes contact with MI6—in the person of an agent named Hector (Damian Lewis). From here on, Perry—who’s just your ordinary bloke—agrees to help out Hector, and in due course he and Gail are deeply involved in “the murky, dangerous world of international espionage and dirty politics.”

The plot device of throwing regular people into a web of international intrigue has been done before, of course—and done better. (Anyone remember The Man Who Knew Too Much?) However, Our Kind of Traitor is essentially redeemed by Skarsgård’s outstanding and quite revealing performance; his Dima lurches across the screen like a fairytale giant whose huge footsteps make the very Earth shake. However, Skarsgård—along with his perfectly fine co-stars McGregor, Lewis and Harris—deserves a screenwriter who’s better at exploiting the kind of intelligent thriller le Carré is known for, and a director who won’t hold back on making us, the thrill-seeking viewers, scream and/or squirm in our seats.

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