Our Kind of Traitor is John le Carre lite

Movie Review: Our Kind of Traitor

Spy adventure about an ordinary couple caught up in the world of the Russian mafia and crooked British politicians lacks the gritty atmosphere — and the plausibility — of the best espionage drama

Our Kind of Traitor


Starring: Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis

Directed by: Susanna White

Running time: 107 minutes

By Jay Stone

Brexit was bad news for just about everyone, but maybe it will provide a boon for John le Carre. The spy novelist was one of the surprise victims of the end of the Cold War: his most memorable character, the British spy George Smiley, disappeared at just about the time the Berlin Wall fell, and le Carre had to base the second half of his career on tales of ordinary men being sucked into the cynical machinations of a weary and under-funded secret service. The resulting dramas never seemed to be worth the build-up.

With England now determined to go it alone in Europe (speaking of under-funded), perhaps there’s a market for a new kind of le Carre anti-hero, an English spymaster wending his way through Belgian bureaucracy looking for way to undermine milk subsidy regulations, say, or sabotaging the French wine industry with infusions of cheap plonk.

Meanwhile, we’ll have to make do with the likes of Our Kind of Traitor, a mild-mannered le Carre story (based on his 2010 novel) about an ordinary man — and his ordinary wife — who get caught up in the world of Russian mafia thugs, crooked politicians and the duplicitous ways of MI6, the intelligence agency that we haven’t trusted since they left Richard Burton dying on the barbed wire of East Berlin in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).

It would take Smiley himself to drag you into one of these plots, but poor old Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor), a British professor of poetry with a name so ironic he could head the deconstruction department at the Sorbonne, is kind of naïve. Perry is on holiday in Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris, taking time out from being Mrs. Moneypenny to James Bond to do some exotic spy tourism of her own.) They’re a troubled pair — something about his affair with a student — but the domestic tribulations disappear when he is taken in hand by Dima (the estimable Stellan Skarsgard) a frighteningly over-friendly Russian. Dima is one of those guys who won’t let you go home until you’ve had a lot of wine, attended one of those only-in-the-movies rich-guy parties where hookers arrive on horseback, and promised to play tennis with him the next day.

He is also the money-launderer for the Russia mafia, and he has a proposition for Perry. He’ll hand over a computer memory stick containing information about how dirty money is being sent to top British politicians, and in return he wants asylum in the U.K. for his wife and children. He asks Perry to deliver the memory stick because a posse of thick-necked Russian goons is watching him, and also because if he didn’t, Our Kind of Traitor would be a very short film.

Perry agrees, but he finds he has landed — like the innocent-abroad heroes of many an Alfred Hitchcock adventure — in the middle of a large, complicated mess. MI6 is represented by Hector (Homeland’s Damian Lewis), whose fat glasses and trench coat evoke memories of Michael Caine’s 1960s spy Harry Palmer, but whose attitudes are all post-millennial. He runs a bankrupt branch of the spy service that’s held in such low regard that he has to rely on civilians like Perry and Gail to do his work for him.

The le Carre twist here is that Hector’s bosses may be in on it, and so the entire operation has to be run on the sly. It’s an ethical shadow that, alas, remains uncast by director Susanna White, a British TV veteran who gives this project the slick sheen of a mini-series — this is the kind of movie you might appreciate more if it was told in four episodes on BBC — but little atmosphere.

Skarsgard, with his tattooed bulk, dominates the enterprise, but he can’t quite disguise the preposterous plotting or the shaky allegiances: we’re prompted to like Dima, the honourable money-launderer, but it’s still difficult to understand how two people like Perry and Gail would become so attached to his family. Their own situation is also unfulfilled: a dangerous visit to a French public housing project is an oddly abbreviated exercise in tension.

Le Carre was once able to create moral dilemmas from shades of grey; here, he’s reduced to putting adorable little girls into danger to create the proper drama. Only the corruption of official Britain strikes you as plausible, but that’s a trope that has been used so often that it seems stale and small. Come back, George Smiley, wherever you are.

THE EX-PRESS, June 30, 2016

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Review: Our Kind of Traitor is John le Carre lite

User Rating

2 (1 Votes)



Our Kind of Traitor: In this lesser John le Carre espionage tale, Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play an ordinary English couple who get caught up in a dangerous game when a Russian mobster (Stellan Skarsgard) asks them to help him defect to Britain. The atmosphere of the best spy stories is missing, and the plot is too implausible to stand on its own. 3 stars out of 5 - Jay Stokne

3 Replies to "Our Kind of Traitor is John le Carre lite"

  • sfawcett July 21, 2016 (6:18 am)

    I agree with this review. The plot was questionable and there was little/no chemistry between the main couple. I have the feeling that a different director might have done more/better with this material. This film certainly didn’t come close to the recent Night Manager mini-series, which was excellent.

  • Doug Small July 1, 2016 (11:19 am)

    Another five-star review for a three-star movie from Canada’s top film critic.

    • kmoexpress July 1, 2016 (4:22 pm)

      Jay IS the best! Thanks for the support.

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