Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor (2016) 

Starring Ewan MacGregor and Stellan Skarsgård 
Directed by Susanna White 

John Le Carré's books have had a pretty good run rate when it comes to screen interpretations.  For an author so closely associated with the long-gone Cold War, his most recent works have explored familiar avenues and themes - deceit, betrayal, misplaced love - but in different environments and with arguably greater success than those of the old East vs West stalemate.  The television adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" starring Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley remains the benchmark, along with Martin Ritt's "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold", which features a great performance from Richard Burton as the embittered titular operative.  "The Russia House", was somewhat overlooked, and obviously since then "The Tailor of Panama", "The Constant Gardner", "A Most Wanted Man", and the tv version of "The Night Manager" have all been top notch.  Tomas Alfredson's 2011 film of "Tinker" pared things down a little but was still a suitably atmospheric retelling.  "Our Kind of Traitor", produced by The Ink Factory, the independent production company founded by Le Carré's sons, is based on his 2010 novel, and apparently completed filming some time back in 2014; this makes its release now, in May 2016 a little strange, but welcome nonetheless.  Instinctively, expectations are lowered when a project sits on the shelf for so long; the cynical might think it was held back deliberately to ride on the coat-tails of "The Night Manager", which was a big success - on BBC, at least.  But how could anyone have known?  I suspect there were some tweaks or re-shoots required for the film's denouement.  Given its subject matter, and the recent news stories surrounding the murky dealings revealed by the so-called "Panama Papers", the theme of financial corruption at the highest levels does feel oddly topical.  This is definitely a new kind of Le Carré.

The film opens with a stunning slow motion shot of a male ballet dancer pirouetting in mid-air, subtly foreshadowing the unexpected contortions in store for the story's characters, giving a sense of a man suspended and twisting... Snowflakes drift by as a Russian financier and his family are brutally gunned down, after a ceremony in which he appeared to be honoured by his new chief... and as  the blood of the teenage daughter seeps into the snow, the opening credits roll.  We then meet Perry Makepeace (Ewan MacGregor), a University poetics lecturer, who is first seen holidaying in Marrakech with lawyer wife Gail (Naomie Harris) in an attempt to save their on-the-rocks marriage.  After an aborted dinner one night, Perry somehow falls in with the boisterous, charismatic Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who turns out to be a money man for the Russian Mafia.  Sensing that he is an honourable man, Dima asks Perry to take a memory stick back to the UK and pass it to the authorities, "your MI6", as he calls them.  Having made contact with Intelligence operative Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis, sporting Harry Palmer glasses but channelling Nigel Green), Perry finds himself unwittingly drawn into the unfolding affair.  Dima has offered details of dozens of British politicians implicated in taking bribes to allow the establishment of a new bank on the London markets, a front for mob money, but he demands protection for himself and his family, fearing they will all suffer the same fate as his friend from the opening scene.  And, not fully trusting Hector, he insists that Perry and Gail be present when they meet.  The powers that be - headed by Billy Matlock (another in the recent catalogue of brilliant cameos from Mark Gatiss, in a scene which gives the Emirates Stadium a neat cameo)) - are naturally sceptical and resistant to a deal  and unwilling to support the operation, but Hector is revealed to have a personal reason for wanting to nail one of the suspects, Aubrey Longrigg MP (Jeremy Northam) and is determined to bring Dima into the fold.  So it is that Perry, far from being the bystander one would expect,  reveals hitherto unknown strengths and courage in trying to do the right thing...

What unfolds is a fairly absorbing thriller.  It's sound and engaging enough, without being exceptional. This might confound a certain section of the audience bringing high expectations of previous JLC adaptations with them, and for sure purist fans of the novel will point to the differences between page and screen, and doubtless find fault at the alterations. But when was a film adaptation ever totally faithful to its source?  This story takes place vividly in an oppressively masculine world. The strings are evidently pulled by men in boardrooms, calmly plotting the slaughter of any associate who could threaten them, men who have the personality to stand out, or those who are simply barbarians relying on brute force. Perry endears himself to Dima when he tries to intervene to stop a thug beating a woman at a party they attend together. It's futile,  Dima says, as he saves him from a beating of his own,  but this is what makes him believe in Perry's decency.  Power nominally, but questionably, sits with men who try to operate within the law, such as Hector and his subdued lieutenant Luke (the excellent Khalid Abdalla).  But they are confounded at seemingly every turn by the system; the real power clearly lies elsewhere - with criminals and politicians. Spot the difference.  When the good men feel the need to test the law's boundaries, things are wholly understood, as frustrating as it is. This is what makes MacGregor's performance all the more effective - because he's a man totally out of his depth gradually discovering his character and sensing the opportunity to atone for his failings and make good on his instinctive desire to do good. The dynamics of influence in today's world is a question which hangs over the film, and lingers when the credits have rolled.  The director, Susanna White, grasps this conflict firmly, and mounts the events in such a way as to glamorise in the early stages not only Dima, but also the Russian mob cronies around him, but then cranking up their inherent nastiness to emphasise the heroism of Perry, Gail, Hector and Luke as the film develops. 

There are some superbly tense sequences in the film; it's a thriller, in other words, it does seek occasionally to thrill, between the geopolitics.  The scene in which the MI6 gang tries to secure the evacuation of Dima and, separately, his family from Bern is genuinely exciting, as is the largely unseen assault on the group's French Alps hideout (after some forehead-smacklingly stupid behaviour by one of the party's number) by the gangsters on their trail, which brilliantly focuses on the young family cowering in their hiding place whilst the gunfight outside is heard, but not seen... And it's the key moment in which Perry steps up,and does something hitherto unimaginable; MacGegor's face, when he realises what he's done is brilliant.  His performance has been unfairly criticised in some quarters, but that seems largely down to his haircut.  But that's totally in keeping with a poetry lecturer.  He's great in this role.  Of the rest of the cast... well, it goes without saying that Skarsgård is magnificent as Dima, all swinging bluster and excessive bonhomie, but betraying an inner terror of a man who knows his days are numbered.  It's just a great performance.  Naomie Harris becomes the fourth James Bond alumnus, following Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan and Ralph Feinnes, to feature in a Le Carré title.  Her role here, as Perry's wife is somewhat under-written, because although she's a crucial part of the adventure, it feels as if she's somehow relegated to the role of baby-sitting the family's children through their ordeal.  In the early scenes - her conflict with her husband - she shines, but admittedly later on she feels like something of a bystander.  Lewis' performance is effectively odd; it's not bad, but it's very mannered, and not at all what we expect from him.  But as the film goes on, it becomes more impressive. A special nod must go to Velibor Topic, who plays the Mob Supremo's right hand man with a chilling charm,    Ultimately, one feels like this is a really well performed film in which the whole cast went all out.

There are some severely clunky moments, to be sure, and it occasionally feels like we're watching a TV drama, wherein certain plot points have to be condensed to make sense. All of which makes it feel not quite perfect.  One wonders, if a TV adaptation actually would have drawn out some of the subtleties required to make things work completely.  There's an unexpected (but brilliant) coda to the film which fundamentally alters the cynicism of Le Carré's original conclusion.  Normally this would drive me up the wall, but in this case it feels so appropriate.The characters are engaging enough that one doesn't want things to end too bleakly.

"Our Kind of Traitor" isn't perfect, by a long stretch, but for any fan of the espionage genre, or of contemporary political thrillers with relevance to the awful state of government, it's a great watch.

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