Our Kind of Traitor

Posted by Joel Copling on June 30, 2016

It should be of little or no surprise to anyone familiar with the literature of John Le Carre (or the film or television adaptations of his work) that the author liked to establish narratives of the espionage variety to study a little something about human nature as it pertained to confined universes in which moral standards are entirely relative. The particulars of the plot were of less import than what those particulars said about the characters trapped within them, which makes "Our Kind of Traitor" simultaneously an inevitability and something of a disappointment. There are no truly decent people with Le Carre's story, which has been adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini and had something apparently lost in translation. The intriguing point-of-view (that of an bystander at first entirely ignorant of the goings-on) eventually fades away for something far more standard and, worse, trivial.

That man is Perry (Ewan McGregor), a poetics professor at London University who is currently on vacation in Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris). The two have been on the rocks since his infidelity with a student, but our introduction to them (after a lengthy prologue that sets up one part of the plot, in which a family of three is murdered and an antique gun is stolen) is as the couple is in bed. There is such a guardedness here that one expects Amini and director Susanna White are going to spend the duration of the plot examining the couple's reconciliation in between points in the plot. To an extent, they do, but it might have been nicer had more focus been put on this relationship, if only because the central plot is a series of wheel-spinning to nowhere in particular.

It regards a member of the Russian mafia. His name is Dima (Stellan Skarsgard in a solid, blustery performance), and he's an accountant for very bad men who are about to open a bank. When he spots Perry, a nice man with a trustworthy face, the gangster asks him to deliver a jump drive to the British government at MI6. This nabs the attention of Hector (Damian Lewis), an agent for the secretive CIA counterpart who wants to place Dima in a series of potentially deadly scenarios to catch "the Prince" (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and the dirty MI6 agent on his payroll. Of course, Dima has a family (a wife and daughter played respectively by Saskia Reeves and Alicia von Rittberg), which is an occupational hazard for a member of the mafia, as he has previously learned all too well.

All potential investment in this plot is relative to whom we can trust and whom we cannot, and trust must be taken with a minuscule grain of salt. All of these characters have moral quibbles with the arrangement agreed upon, each of the less honorable ones has a reason to kill everyone else involved, and it's useless to guess what will happen when neither Amini nor Le Carre nor White find the solution all that important. The climax of "Our Kind of Traitor" is an explosion of gun violence that all takes place offscreen, but while the suggestion of such carnage is preferable to having it spelled out for us, the simplification by the scene of all that has come before remains a problem. The last scenes of syrupy reconciliation followed by a bitter pill of comeuppance are a problem, too, although at least they introduce a moral quandary: What else could all of this have led up to? That's another way of asking, "Is that all?"

Film Information

Ewan McGregor (Perry), Naomie Harris (Gail), Stellan Skarsgard (Dima), Damian Lewis (Hector), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg), Khalid Abdalla (Luke), Mark Gatiss (Billy Matlock), Grigoriy Dobrygin (The Prince), Velibor Topic (Emilio Del Oro), Saskia Reeves (Tamara), Alicia von Rittberg (Natasha).

Directed by Susanna White and written by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by John Le Carre.

Rated R (violence, language throughout, sexuality, nudity, brief drug use).

107 minutes.

Released on July 1, 2016.