By Elias Savada.
I wasn’t attracted to the ruffled, ordinary couple at the core of the latest big screen John le Carré adaptation, which, I believe, is the tenth feature birthed from the writings of 84-year-old British author, responsible for nearly two-dozen best-selling spy fiction novels. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play a tired, haggard British couple trying to get their fragile marriage in order with a vacation in Morocco. She’s a successful barrister who can’t distance herself from work at the cost of their relationship. He’s a downtrodden poetics professor who has apparently had a stray dalliance with one of his students.
While a globetrotting story that maneuvers between Moscow (technically, Finland, subbing for Russian exteriors), Marrakech, London, Paris, Bern, and other picturesque European landscapes fresh out of The Sound of Music might make for entertaining, escapist James Bond fare, there is a feeling of post Cold War creakiness throughout director Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor. Sitting through to the end of the nearly two-hour drag, I lamented that no cast member would stray from the pedantic script and break into song (“The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Gunfire…”). Too bad, as you might actually remember this generally forgettable film. Unimaginative camerawork (Anthony Dod Mantle, hopefully more in award-winning Slumdog Millionaire mode with his forthcoming Snowden), perfunctory editing (Tariq Anwar and Lucia Zuchetti), and clinical direction (this is White’s second feature, after 2010’s Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, known in the U.S. as Nanny McPhee Returns) don’t help the by-the-numbers, foretelling screenplay by Hossein Amini (Drive, Wings of a Dove).
While the performances are not phoned-in, I just couldn’t get excited about anyone, except for Stellan Sjarsgård as Dima, a robust, exuberant, occasionally jovial, and eventually remorseful Russian money launderer who recruits the innocent Perry and Gail for a crazy scheme. Forget vetting – they were the only other people in an empty restaurant where the crook was slurping expensive wine with his too-watchful bodyguards and associates (as Dima would reveal later in a lighter moment at a safe house in the Swiss Alps). He needs Peery in a lame brained, Hail Mary attempt to save his family from certain death at the hands of the Vory a.k.a. the Russian mafia (played with no variation from the expected stereotypes), who also have a small boatload of British collaborators in tow. Tattoos, greasy and shoulder-length hair, and a sneer can make anyone look menacing, but most of the cast plays their roles with stolid demeanor, including Homeland‘s Damian Lewis as a dutiful MI6 agent who smells more than a few rotten bankers and politicians in his midst.
Too many knowing or nervous glances. Too many sideway stares. Too many watchful eyes. And too slow a delivery without a final, effective punch.
Putting the le Carré name on a book, or a film, used to have special meaning. A half century ago, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was an award-winning experience heralding the first transfer of the author’s many espionage thrillers to the screen. During the 2010s, I thought Gary Oldman’s excellent portrayal of the diligent intelligence officer George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was definitely worth an Oscar nomination, although Alec Guinness was perfectly cast when he ruled the character in two BBC TV series. A Most Wanted Man, one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last role, had more of an impact for his nuanced, soulful performance and Anton Corbijn’s textured direction, than on the actual source material. The recent mini-series of The Night Manager (based on le Carré’s 1993 first post-Cold War novel) with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston was quite watchable courtesy of Susanne Bier’s assured direction.
Any tension surrounding this film might be from worry that it arrived almost two years after the end of principal photography (and that was after two more years of starts and stops with other cast and White taking over for original director Justin Kurzel in late 2013). If you’re looking for a taut spy thriller, don’t look for Our Kind of Traitor for nourishment.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.