'Our Kind of Traitor': A Couple on the Brink and a Plea From a Mobster in Need

An exciting John le Carré novel could have been turned into a riveting film thriller, but in 'Our Kind of Traitor,' the characters are shallow and tension nonexistent.

The most effective recipe for creating a good thriller is to choose an ordinary person who finds himself involved by chance in an adventure that wrenches him out of his normal life. We find it easier to identify with such a character than with a professional, like a secret agent, whose fate does not really move us and whose experiences therefore fail to generate tension. This is the choice that informs “Our Kind of Traitor,” a film by the British director Susanna White, based on a novel by John le Carré. His writing, though it demands meticulous filmmaking, has spawned numerous praiseworthy big-screen and television productions over the past 50 years. But White fails to construct a riveting thriller on this foundation, and this borders on cinematic treachery.

The protagonist, Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor), a poetry lecturer at a London university, is on holiday in Marrakesh with his partner, Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris), a successful lawyer. The purpose of the trip is to try to rehabilitate their relationship, which was damaged when Perry cheated on Gail (as expected, given that Perry is an academic, he had an affair with a student). On their last evening in Marrakesh, Gail has to take part in an important conference call, leaving Perry by himself in a restaurant. While she is out, he is contacted by Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), a hot-tempered Russian who invites Perry to join him and his partying buddies. Perry accepts the invitation and, Gail having disappeared for hours – it’s apparently a very long conference call – he also accompanies Dima to a wild party.

The next day, Perry joins Dima for a game of tennis, and discovers that Dima didn’t befriend him just for his good company. Dima has an ulterior motive. It turns out that he’s a money launderer for the Russian mafia, which is run by a gangster called The Prince (whom we previously saw wipe out a whole family in an attractive snowy setting). Dima, who fears for his and his family’s fate, wants to extricate himself from the clutches of the mobsters. To that end, he asks Perry to give the British authorities information about connections that exist between senior figures in British industry and politics, and the Russian mafia. The incriminating list includes an MP (Jeremy Northam). In return, Dima requests political asylum for himself and his family in Britain.

Perry, who is portrayed consistently as a man of principle (despite cheating on his partner), agrees to help Dima. Gail is at first hesitant, but finally agrees to get involved. (One of the movie’s blunders is the fact that Gail’s acumen as a successful lawyer plays no part in the plot, and is completely forgotten.) Already at the airport in London, Perry passes the material he received from Dima to Hector (Damian Lewis), from MI6. Henceforth the story, true to its genre and to the armchair-traveler pleasure that is part of its brief, starts to move in international circles.

Ewan McGregor in 'Our Kind of Traitor.'
Jaap Buitendijk

But the enjoyment we derive is minimal, first and foremost because Perry and Gail are so thinly drawn that we don’t believe a thing they do. We have no idea how and why the adventure they get caught up in is supposed to get their relationship back on track. Moreover, their motives for coming to Dima’s aid are so vague as to be virtually nonexistent. As a result, we are unable to identify with Perry and share in his qualms, if indeed he feels any. Gail’s character is even more abstruse. She projects a cold presence and seems superfluous for most of the film, even though the plot touches on questions of relationships and parenthood.

Another problem is the way the story unfolds. It is clumsily constructed and full of holes, which are supposedly filled by hints that are meant to amplify the characters, but do not. The visual elegance the director aims for only generates a feeling of excess that beclouds the final product even more than the flawed script and the uninspired direction. The potential to expose British corruption, stemming from the ties of senior figures to the Russian mafia, remains unrealized. Any promise the picture offered of saying something fiercely critical about the reality in which it’s set is unfulfilled, and the characters’ shallowness sinks it as a credible thriller.

The good movies and television series based on works by Le Carré are those that succeed in creating an atmosphere of political, and above all moral, ambivalence. This is completely absent in “Our Kind of Traitor.” Because it is utterly flat in human, plot and conceptual terms, the actors can only convey a single uniform tone, which makes for monotony. This is quite possibly the slightest film yet made from a John le Carré book.