Sunday, 15 May 2016

Our Kind of Traitor (2016, UK)

Exciting and nuanced in parts but ultimately only satisfactory spy film based on a le Carré novel. The film maintains tension to the last and has moments of real drama, with a strong central friendship, but is ultimately let down by a few too many shortcuts and middling plotting.
Adapted from the John le Carré stable of spy novels comes this taut and yet contemplative thriller, with Director Susanna White at the helm. Fundamentally this is a story of two safe, educated but fairly ordinary people being dropped into the middle of a major conspiracy replete with spies, guns, drugs and gangsters. If this gives you a whiff of Transsiberian or Constant Gardener or even True Lies, you’re not far off.

The core of the movie is driven by the unlikely friendship of Ewan McGregor’s Professor (“Perry”) and Stellan Skarsgard’s Russian money launderer (“Dima”), who seduces the former with his glitzy lifestyle and palatial abode(s). However, all is not well – a power grab at the top of his organisation leaves him certain to be killed in very little time. So Dima attempts to use Perry to flee from his vengeful overlords. Perry and his wife “Gail” (played by Naiomi Harris) become embroiled in this and ultimately end up taking an active role in smuggling him and his family out of Russia and into Britain.

The film exploits our fantasy of being involved with spies and gangsters and whether we'd be up to the challenge - and in this the film mostly succeeds, even if sometimes it felt like it lacked authenticity (can you just get to MI6 at the airport?). Nonetheless, it provided the thrills and spills. At another level, this story is at a level testament to humanity’s ability to empathise and fight for one another, even if the person you are fighting for is a violent (occasionally) money-launderer. Perry and Gail are going through a rocky patch and subconsciously intend to use this to spice up their life (back to True Lies here). They really don’t need to do anything, but their concern for the children and the sheer excitement of it all overtake them.

The film delights in showing us shades of grey: in one scene, Skarsgard nearly murders one of the men sent to ‘control’ him in a very brutal way, and yet we are meant to root for him because he cares about his family. McGregor himself is a somewhat ambiguous character: he has cheated on his wife previously and seems to take hard drugs with a reckless élan.
You can definitely quibble with some things in the movie: it’s not clear how gangsters can go around murdering money launderers right after they’ve handed over all their accounts, or how one goes about finding an MI6 officer at the airport (in the book, the Prof has help) or why MI6 doesn’t attempt to use the French security forces against the Russian mob, or why the Russians speak to eachother in English, etc etc. But this film isn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of the spy genre – it’s more about the “feels”. Why else would the movie dwell on Skarsgard’s daughter admitting that she loves one of the men sent to keep an eye on her dad? The movie is more interested in locations, characters and things that are left unsaid.

So it is with Perry - he saves damsels in distress on two separate occasions, which is calculated to tell us that he’s a man of real principle, even if it puts him in danger. The main narrative arc in this film is clearly Perry – he starts the film and indeed in some ways finishes it as a milquetoast Professor who doesn’t seem to impose himself on any conversation and you wonder how he holds the attention of a whole class. But then that class is ‘poetics’. By the end of the film, he’s murdered a man in cold blood, negotiated with spies, helped a serious criminal escape and pulled off a heist in Paris. If that sounds improbable, it is. Still, stay for the ride. AM

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