The post-Cold War world has not been especially kind to John le Carre, whose attempt to apply the approach he used so brilliantly in his early spy novels to stories about the past quarter-century has often been marred by heavy-handed didacticism and narrative obviousness. That hasn’t stopped efforts to adapt his more recent books for the screen, especially since he and his family have become active on the production side; but the results haven’t matched the exquisite dances of deception that marked the television versions of his George Smiley tales with Alec Guinness.
Like the mini-series based on “The Night Manager” that was broadcast on AMC, Susanna White’s “Our Kind of Traitor” is a respectable tale of modern espionage, boasting a solid dose of the author’s patented cynicism about contemporary intelligence services, but it lacks the subtlety and icy precision of “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” or “The Deadly Affair,” let alone “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (either version) or “Smiley’s People.” It has a certain Hitchcockian spin in its focus on an ordinary fellow drawn into a world to which he’s totally unsuited, but even in that respect it can’t hold a candle to “The 39 Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” or “North by Northwest.”
Ewan McGregor is the unlikely hero, a British university professor named Perry Makepeace, who’s on vacation in Marrakesch with his girlfriend Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris) when he’s invited by a voluble, bearlike Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), to have a drink at his table, and then to go off to a raucous party. Eventually, however, Dima reveals that he has a larger purpose in mind than mere joviality. He’s the chief money launderer for the Russian mob, headed by “The Prince” (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a steely, brutal fellow who has a habit of having his foes terminated with extreme prejudice after apparently honoring them with the gift of a gleaming pistol that is returned to him for reuse after their execution. Such a fate has recently befallen a friend of Dima’s, along with his wife and eldest daughter; Dima has taken the remaining children into his own family, and now aims to bring The Prince down. He gives Perry a flash drive containing details of the mob’s financial operations, asking the callow fellow to pass it along to MI6.
The information immediately piques the interest of Hector (Damian Lewis), an owlish agent, because it suggests a connection between The Prince and some important Brits, including his hated former boss (Jeremy Northam), an effete politician who’s colluding with the Russians to give them control of a Swiss bank. Though his superiors in the agency refuse to fund his plan to cultivate Dima and bring the mob’s British collaborators to justice, Hector doesn’t let that stop him, convincing Perry and Gail to return to Europe to arrange for the escape of Dima, along with his family and the rest of his incriminating information, to London. Corruption within MI6 itself, however, puts the entire operation in jeopardy, and the narrative closes with the sort of tragedy that epitomizes le Carre’s cynicism about the current state of western intelligence services, followed nevertheless by a twist that suggests right might eventually prevail in spite of all the obstacles put in its way.
“Our Kind of Traitor” works on a fairly basic espionage level, though like most of the author’s post-Cold War work it lacks the complexity and nuance that marked his earlier novels. It’s efficiently made, with capable direction from Susanna White and widescreen cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle that occasionally brings a touch of elegance to the predominantly dark images. McGregor gets by as the ordinary guy dragged into dangerous circumstances, and Harris provides solid support, while Lewis evinces a prune-faced peevishness that suits Hector. But it’s Skarsgard who energizes the film with his broad, oversized turn as the wily Russian crook turned against his confederates.
A film adaptation of a John le Carre novel is always worth watching, just as the books, even the ones that are mediocre by his standards, are worth reading. But “Our Kind of Traitor” was one of his lesser recent efforts, and even a script by the estimable Hossein Amini can’t elevate the material to a higher level. It might have been more at home as an episode of the PBS Mystery series than in a theatre auditorium, and it might well wind up on the tube before long; but fans of the author need not wait.
Le Carre, incidentally, has a blink-and-you’ll miss it cameo in the picture, as he also did in “The Night Manager.” He’s becoming the new Stan Lee.