The whole film feels like there’s something a bit off, which is all the more annoying since there is so much that is good about it.
Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor has style to burn. Adapted from a John Le Carré novel by Hossein Amini, shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, and featuring a star-studded cast including Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellen Skarsgård, and Saskia Reeves, it has plenty to recommend it. Unfortunately, it lacks two things that keep it at the level of an OK thriller rather than a hit on the order of Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: an engaging story line with believable motivations for the principal characters.
That Our Kind of Traitor succeeds at all when lacking those elements is a credit to all concerned, but it also makes you wonder where the enterprise that produced this film went astray. Principal photography was completed two years ago, so perhaps it was a case of too many cooks. Or perhaps there’s simply too much necessary detail in the Le Carré novel to allow it to be condensed into a single feature film, and it would have been better served with a television miniseries. Whatever the cause, the whole film feels like there’s something a bit off, which is all the more annoying since there is so much that is good about it.
The story involves a setup beloved of Alfred Hitchcock: ordinary people who find themselves, for no fault of their own, involved in a life-and-death situation far beyond anything their everyday lives have prepared them for. After a brief prequel in which the beauty of ballet and the splendor of the Russian countryside are contrasted with the unceremonious brutality of the murder of all members of a family, the film drops us into the lives of Perry Makepeace (McGregor) and his wife Gail Perkins (Harris), a British poetry professor and his barrister wife vacationing in Marrakesh and trying to patch up their rocky marriage.
Ever the opportunist, Dima (Skarsgård), a genial Russian straight out of central casting, sees Perkins walking out in something of a huff, and instantly offers himself as Makepeace’s new best friend. McGregor’s character might as well be called Dopey McDopeface for how easily he falls into Dima’s trap, but his gullibility does serve to allow the rest of the story to happen. Before long, we find out what’s really on Dima’s mind—he wants Makepeace to help him turn over key information about money laundering to the British authorities, in return for asylum for himself and his family. And how did Dima come by this information? He’s a mobster who has found the game getting a little too hot and fears he might be the next in line to be slaughtered in the woods like the poor sucker we saw in the prologue.
Perkins, clearly the smarter half of the couple, is immediately suspicious, particularly because Makepeace can offer no plausible explanation for why he wants to get involved in such a risky operation. Unlike many Hitchcock characters, such as Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, Makepeace makes a conscious decision to become involved in something any normal person would choose to leave alone, and the film’s lack of interest in illuminating that choice is a serious shortcoming.
Perkins is only his wife, however, so Makepeace pays her no mind, which lets the plot move forward while leaving a very talented actress with nothing much to do (some babysitting, some emoting, but that’s about it). Never mind that infidelity with a student that is half-heartedly brought up to explain what’s troubling their marriage—when a guy makes a habit of ignoring the common sense of his more accomplished and successful wife, and can’t give any good reasons for making decisions that endanger both of them, it’s probably time to pack it in. Except, oh right, that’s fairly typical behavior for men in Hollywood feature films, and apparently this European product has caught the disease as well.
One of the more intriguing aspects of Our Kind of Traitor is the way White makes it seem like the real action is happening just off screen, in a language you can’t understand or at a distance where you can’t quite tell what is going on. The result is that you experience some of the same disorientation as Makepeace and Perkins, knowing something is happening but never understanding quite what it is. Dod Mantle’s cinematography crosses the standard spy thriller look with the feel of a series of commercials for luxury goods, perhaps reflecting the allure that the world of espionage has for a guy who spends his days lecturing on T.S. Eliot to an audience of bored undergrads. Location shooting in Morocco, Switzerland, France, and Switzerland is also a plus for those who like a little travelogue with their story. | Sarah Boslaugh