The John Grisham of le Carré Films

Our Kind of Traitor
(UK/France, 108 min.)
Dir. Susanna White, Writ. Hossein Amini
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Naomie Harris, Damian Lewis, Jeremy Northam
Ewan McGregor as Perry Makepeace and Naomie Harris as Gail Perkins. in Our Kind of Traitor.
An Entertainment One release.

Our Kind of Traitor takes John le Carré and drives him straight into John Grisham territory. This implausible, unconvincing, and heavy-handed thriller hammers its themes and noble characters with the blunt force of a hack’s gavel. The difference between a le Carré novel and a Grisham book is a lot like the divide between a “film” a “movie,” and adaptations of the British spy novelist, especially with The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, more than meet the standards of their source material. This latest lark, however, is about as generic, hokey, and, therefore, Grisham-y, as a spy flick can get. Put away the Smiley emoji.

The premise of Our Kind of Traitor resembles a poor man’s Da Vinci Code as Ewan McGregor (August: Osage County) stars as Perry the poetry professor who tries to pull a Robert Langdon and fumbles when an eccentric Russian mobster named Dima (Stellan Skarsgard, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) catches him in a quagmire of international intrigue. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code at least works since its protagonist uses his book smarts to advance an investigation, while Perry just behaves like a boob with a hero complex as he puts himself and his wife Gail (Naomi Harris, Skyfall) in progressively deeper danger that anyone with a PhD would recognise as utter lunacy.

Our Kind of Traitor continues the unfortunate slump of the usually reliable McGregor’s career following Mortdecai and his hilariously mustachioed turn in Jane Got a Gun. McGregor doesn’t bring his spy game, nor does his performance carry the confidence and intelligence it needs to sell Perry as an everyman, or even an anti-hero with untapped valour. He’s miscast as both a spy and an intellectual even if Our Kind of Traitor, deep down, wants to inspire to see within themselves some potential to be James Bond. At least Perry doesn’t speak in heroic couplets.

Despite the MI6 agents getting involved (they’re played by Wolf Hall’s Damian Lewis and The Kite Runner’s Khalid Abdalla), Perry clings to hope that the Russian gangster who played him like a sucker—and is obviously flat-out nuts—is a good soul worth saving. Lewis, like Skarsgard, gives a lively performance that makes Our Kind of Traitor an infrequently engaging spy flick thanks to suave intelligence and cartoonish scene-chewing galore. The steely resolve of Lewis’s spy Hector helps root the film in the realism with which le Carré flicks frequently excel, although the script by Hossein Amini (Snow White and the Huntsman) lumbers with on-the-nose orations when it seeks to connect the seedy characters to the corruption in parliament.

Our Kind of Traitor really stumbles, though, in the pedestrian direction of Susanna White. Here’s where the John Grisham-y authorship comes into play. The film simply doesn’t have any spark to its lethargic and exposition-heavy mission. The story is actually quite interesting, if one gets past the whole poet-in-peril thing, as it asks if a devious character deserves redemption and if the innocence of his wife and children outweigh the evil he’s done. The film doesn’t handle the depth or the action with much finesse, and White plays everything with the safe and perfectly serviceable, but ultimately forgettable, flatness of a beach read. It’s impossible to see Our Kind of Traitor as anything but lesser le Carré after the likes of Fernando Meirelles, Thomas Alfredson, and Anton Corbijn played the game like sharp-shooting 00-agents.  

Our Kind of Traitor is now playing in limited release.