When John le Carré’s name is attached to a movie or television series, you already know what to expect. An author whose firsthand experience in the intelligence world informs his work, the novelist has developed a singular approach to spy stories. The films and series based on his work have attracted sizable budgets and A-list casts despite the labyrinthine governmental entanglements and devastating, feel-bad endings that come with le Carré’s territory. But where some of those other projects managed to preserve the author’s grounded approach, “Our Kind of Traitor” represents a Hollywood pivot to a film that, while entertaining at points, dilutes le Carré’s potency.
The aforementioned star power here comes from Ewan McGregor, playing unassuming poetry professor Perry (introduced kissing and caressing a woman’s naked back, lest you think he lacks mainstream movie spy bona fides), who becomes an unlikely pawn in a cross-continent informational tug-of-war. While on vacation in Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris), Perry meets a gregarious Russian stranger named (Stellan Skarsgård) in a deserted high-scale bar, who invites him for an evening of opulence. (He has it.) As Ewan and Stellan strike up a friendship and the illicit source of Stellan’s wealth becomes more apparent, the money launderer asks his new tennis buddy to bring confidential info back to London. Dima’s crime overlords want him dead and there’s a short window of time to escape into the welcoming arms of the UK as an informant.
BBC and AMC’s recent miniseries based on le Carré’s “The Night Manager” mined interesting dramatic territory by asking an ordinary citizen to make personal sacrifices in the name of global justice. But Perry’s task as a Good Spymaritan, with nothing to gain from his actions but the potential safety of Dima and his family, adds the film’s one redemptive wrinkle. Initially an observer to her husband’s potentially misguided alliance, Gail eventually joins the fray and the two act as a unified force in the efforts to get Dima out of harm’s way.
Where McGregor and Harris’ interplay occasionally adds some previously unexplored layers to Hossein Amini’s script, Damian Lewis’ Hector is a bundle of conventions. As the MI6 agent acting outside his purview to help expedite Dima’s defection, Hector’s first handful of scenes reduce him to a bespoke-suited exposition delivery service. (While Hector is cluing his colleague into the inner workings of a meeting of financial bigwigs they’re surveilling, you can see the pain on Mark Gattis’ face as his character points out the redundancy of relaying all this information to someone who needs no explanation.)
One of the appeals of other le Carré adaptations is their keen awareness that intrigue comes with a heavy dose of bureaucracy. The decisions that guide policies, lives and nations often come from unremarkable places and slightly less unremarkable individuals. The ramifications of those actions drive the story and the never-ending cycle of interdepartmental miscommunication continues. If there are triumphs, they’re only momentary, because the next security leak is always around the corner.
Lewis’ Hector isn’t the weak link of “Our Kind of Traitor” because he shirks the defiant-from-the-inside bureaucrat mold. It’s what comes in its place. Once the film sees Lewis turn from a commentator to an active participant in the proceedings, most of his screen time is spent delivering toothless threats to rich corporate threats and delivering preachy boardroom speeches that prominently feature the phrase “blood money.”
Director Susanna White finds some tension in a handful of small-scale extractions and showdowns with mafia henchmen, but there’s an overall polish that runs antithetical to some of the best adaptations of le Carré’s work. The late-night debauchery at the homes of Dima’s colleagues is ultra-tidy and Hector’s home is almost comically sophisticated. Even the domestic tension in Ewan and Harris’ marriage gets a convenient easing as their all-encompassing task brings them closer together — the idea of espionage as a cure-all runs perpendicular to the know-one-knows-anything ethos of le Carré’s major works.
There’s also a glaring lack of specificity in “Our Kind of Traitor,” except in the extravagant party scenes that feel less like pieces of a le Carré story than perfume ads. Tomas Alfredsson’s 2011 “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (not only the best recent le Carré adaptation, but one of the better films of the decade) drew criticism from some for having an impenetrable plot, but “Our Kind of Traitor” is the cautionary tale against veering too far in the opposite direction.
With Hector’s spoon-fed plot updates and a greater Russian syndicate that exists as little more than a shadowy figurehead and an excuse to brutally murder a family before the opening credits stop rolling, it’s a single, breezy throughline that doesn’t demand any investigative curiosity from its audience.
Somewhere inside “Our Kind of Traitor” is a commentary on the limited resources at the disposal of international crime-fighting efforts and the murky politics of border security. (That this film’s release comes in the wake of Europe’s last few weeks is a coincidence, but it does wind up hinting at a greater relevancy without digging deep.) But the bigger-picture view is buried under the weight of a crowd-pleaser checklist. Back in 2010, when the original novel was released, le Carré recorded the audiobook. Maybe this story is best left for him to tell.
“Our Kind of Traitor” opens in theaters on Friday.