Sunday, July 17, 2016
Our Kind of Traitor (***)
Directed by Susanna White
The literature of John le Carré has long been a favorite of film studios. His stories of espionage and betrayal are always ripe with character and complex plotlines that weave together brilliantly, almost too conveniently, for cinema. 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was perhaps the best of the bunch, though 2014's A Most Wanted Man (starring a Philip Seymour Hoffman just before his tragic death) is no slouch either. Those two films elevated the work of le Carré from Hollywood pulp to rarified drama. Susanna White's Our Kind of Traitor is much closer to the earlier adaptations of the crime novelist, more populist less intellectual. It has the aide of a screenplay by Hossein Amini, a master screenwriter who specializes in these kind of thriller novel adaptations. Traitor's screenplay simply doesn't have the scope and complexity of Tinker Tailor, nor does it carry the topical gravitas of A Most Wanted Man, but what Amini and White construct here is still much more interesting than most Hollywood suspense films. Its story is traditional but detailed, and while its thematic heft is slight, it still carries with it a true understanding of the situations and institutions that it displays. It's story is a bit of a Hitchcockian construct: a random act of fate slates an innocent man into a web of dangerous men, where he must cooperate within a ethically mercurial world in order to survive. The results are a bit more sophisticated than you might initially think.
Ewan McGregor plays Perry, a poetics professor at the University of London who takes a trip to Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) in an attempt to try and repair a flailing marriage. The trip's purpose is bluntly discarded when Gail's demanding job as a London barrister takes her away from Perry often, and he's left alone at a pricey restaurant where the only other patrons are a group of loud, roughhousing Russians. One of the Russians, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), eagerly invites Perry to join them for drinks, and then to attend a local party. Perry is hesitant, but is won over by Dima's gregarious personality. The party they end up attending is loud, drug-fueled and, Perry later learns, filled with high-ranking members of the Russian mafia. Dima is friendly but pushy, and he further forces his way into Perry and Gail's vacation. The couple agree to go to a birthday party for Dima's daughter Natasha (Alicia von Rittberg), where Dima corners Perry alone and reveals the truth about his courtship of the young couple: he's an account man for the Russian mafia, which is being squeezed out by a new regime, led by a newly crowned prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who is wiping out mafia members as a front of legitimacy for his plan to help fund a seedy bank deal which will line the pockets not only of the Prince and his entourage, but even political members in London and throughout the world. Dima needs Perry's help, because he has no one else. Even his closest bodyguards are all stooges for the bloodthirsty prince looking to clear out anyone who can connect him to the blood money he's filtering into English banks.
Demi gives Perry a jump drive and tells him to give it to the nearest MI6 agent. Demi is willing to part ways with this very sensitive criminal information in exchange for asylum for his family in London. When Gail learns of Perry's willing participation in the plot, she's upset with her husband's decision to endanger the two of them as a loyalty ploy for a man they barely know, a criminal no less. Things get more complicated when MI6 officer Hector (Damian Lewis) gets involved in the case. Hector is a no-rules-required officer who agrees to pull forward with his plan to help Demi, even without clearance from his superiors. The one major hiccup is that Demi refuses to cooperate in negotiations with Hector unless Perry and Gail agree to join them. Demi has little trust in English intelligence agencies, and wants a man he knows will look out for his interests to help him and his family escape their perilous situation. Perry and Gail are then whisked away to Paris where they work with Hector and Demi in a an attempt to gain the information prominent enough for Hector to convince the MI6 to grant asylum to the noteworthy Russian criminal. Demi could care less about his own safety, he just wants a guarantee that his family won't be slaughtered like the families of so many other targets for the prince and his nefarious, far-reaching team looking to claim greater political prominence through their backdoor deals.
Amini's screenplay is tight, but relies heavily on contrivance. Character details are so prominent and so unlikely that it seems to telegraph future plot points for the story, but Amini is smart to include all the usual calling cards that make le Carré such an entrancing storyteller. Traitor is riddled aching suspense, and the performances from Skarsgård and McGregor are strong enough to move past the film's weaker elements. Susanna White has spent most of her career working in television, directing Dickensian miniseries and the occasional episodes of prestige dramas Masters of Sex and Boardwalk Empire. Her only other feature directorial credit is the Nanny McPhee sequel. Her direction of Traitor runs quite similar to director Anton Corbijn's treatment of A Most Wanted Man, as both filmmakers use the exotic locales to flood the screen with color, and add great tension to scenes by overexposing the light. This film isn't ingeniously made, but its competence in how to deal with le Carré's story and Amini's script shows - even if its only a small gesture - just how far studios have gone in terms of the stories they allow female filmmakers to tell. White clearly has an understanding of how to construct a taut, suspenseful sequence, and her handling of such veteran cast is admirable. The density of le Carré's stories sometimes leave little room for your average two-hour movie (alas, the genius of Tinker Tailor, which compressed so much, so well), but Amini and White are able to craft a fairly entertaining thriller that even manages to have some legitimate heart.
I want to take a moment of admiration for Stellan Skarsgård, one of cinema's greatest scoundrels. He specializes in either greasy sleazeballs with a surprising amount of emotional gravity, or seedy everymen who have secret, sinister motives. The most obvious thing David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie did was cast Skarsgård as Martin Vanger; we knew who the killer was as soon as we saw Skarsgård's grinning mug on the screen. In Our Kind of Traitor he is doing some of his best work, as a Russian mafia man who lives by an honor code that is being perverted by a young monarch bent on political oligarchy. Skarsgård is funny, sweet, dangerous and fascinating to watch. Despite his crimes and the crimes of his peers (who knows how many murders he's directly responsible for), the Danish actor is able to craft a character so wonderfully charming, we can see how McGregor's Perry could be so won over by him. McGregor's performance here is fine, but Amini's script treats the everyman protagonist with very little interest. Perry is by far the least interesting character in the film, and his ordinariness is able to reflect the other performances which are all more mannered. Lewis, especially, is having a lot of fun here, chewing scenery and hamming it up as the rule-breaking Hector, who is the most common le Carré character: the morally ambiguous officer who always keeps his true, honorable motives close to vest. The cast makes Our Kind of Traitor something special, taking it from a hackneyed studio espionage film to a clever, intelligent thriller; a modest alternative to overwrought Summer blockbusters.