Tuesday 17 May 2016

Our Kind Of Traitor

Le Carré On Up The Spy Bar

Our Kind Of Traitor
2016 UK Directed by Susanna White 
UK cinema release print.

I’ve not seen all of the Le Carré movie adaptations but, of the ones I have seen, I’ve only thought three of them were really worth watching... The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, The Russia House and The Constant Gardener. The last one I remember seeing was a very popular but, as far as I’m concerned, not so hot adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (reviewed here). However, I wasn’t going to be put off by one bad experience and, when I saw the trailer to director Susanna White’s new adaptation of Our Kind Of Traitor... well, it looked pretty similar to The Russia House to me and, since it had a stellar cast, to boot, I thought I’d give it a go.

The film is, it turns out, very similar to The Russia House in terms of the plot set up. In this one, Stellan Skarsgård plays Dima, a Russian employed money launderer who needs to get himself and, more importantly, his family, out of Russia fast, before they are all ‘executed’ by the Russian mafia. Fortunately, he has a bargaining chip, a list of names and numbers of bank accounts of prominent members of the British aristocracy who are taking backhanders in order to let the Russian mafia launder their money in a new bank in London. So, yeah... it’s pretty much a documentary of the current British political regime, it would seem to me. Anyway, he needs someone he can trust to act as his liaison with the British secret service and so he picks on a civilian and his wife, who he meets in a bar, to deliver a memory stick and to be an unbiased outsider to the process. The husband and wife he picks are Perry and Gail, who are going through a rough spot in their marriage and who are brought to life on screen, rather well I might add, by Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris.

When you have Skarsgard in the cast, you know you’ve probably got a quality product in the works... he’s come a long way since he was appearing in stuff like the Swedish sexploitation movie Anita: Swedish Nymphet (aka Anita - The Shocking Account Of A Young Nymphomaniac) opposite Christina Lindberg. I first came across him as an actor myself in the movie The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and, frankly, he’s got to be one of the best living actors in the world. Ewan McGregor is almost always good to watch... I say almost because I’ve still not gotten over how bad Mortdecai was, my new gold standard in the “At least it can’t be as bad as...” sentence finisher... but, yeah, he’s a pretty amazing actor. And Naomie Harris, who is perhaps best known as the new Miss Moneypenny? Well I’ve liked her ever since I first saw her in 28 Days Later and, personally, I think she should headline a load of films. Add to this mix a brilliant supporting cast with such modern day ‘character actor’ giants such as Damian Lewis, Mark Gatiss (doing extremely well here) and Jeremy Northam (the latter being somewhat wasted in screen time, it seemed to me) and you have a film which you’d think would be hard to mess up.

And director Sussana White certainly doesn’t mess it up, it has to be said. Turning in a film in which she manages to maintain the cold war suspense that is the lifeblood of these kind of low key spy thrillers... injecting the deliberate slow pacing with a shot of tension that does just the trick. And it’s a good job she does too because, in terms of the storyline on this one, it seems a very simplistic kind of affair and certainly not the convoluted, twisty turny thriller that one might expect of a novel by John Le Carre. In fact, some of the film’s key sequences are telegraphed far ahead of when the incidents in question actually happen. Now, I’ve not read Le Carré’s novel on which this is based and so, while it’s certainly a temptation to say that this big screen version of it has been somewhat dumbed down for a film audience, I don’t think this is necessarily the case. It could be, of course, but when you have someone like Le Carré and the kind of audience he attracts... why bother.

Luckily for everyone, White has a certain visual panache on display here. She often adds the nice touch of shooting a lead in to the main scene in a voyeuristic, fly on the wall, manner such as viewing her actors and actresses through a foreground frame, like an architectural detail or a window, the frame within a frame allowing us to approach the scene with caution at first, before plunging into the fray. Also, she does some lovely establishing shots which are way longer than they need to be but which give the film a certain leisurely pacing to match the building plot, such as a helicopter shot of a train which stays with the external view and follows it for a while, before taking us into the carriage with the central cast.

The musical score, by Marcelo Zarvos, matches the mood and pacing of the movie perfectly. Although I could have done without the Spanish guitar style moments, the music naturally owes some small debt to the kind of instrumentation shorthand invented, pretty much, by John Barry for the spy genre with films like The IPCRESS File (reviewed here) although, to my tin ear, it sounded even more stylistically closer to Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the aforementioned Le Carré thriller The Russia House. Especially in terms of the baseline rhythms used in certain sections of the movie. Either way, I’ll definitely be putting in an order for the score from Quartet Records, who are just about put this one out on CD. Looking forward to giving that one a few spins as a stand alone listen.

And that’s pretty much it, in terms of Our Kind Of Traitor, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not the greatest of the Le Carré screen adaptations, for sure, but it’s certainly one of the better ones to give a nice atmosphere reminiscent of the kind of spirit found in his books and, despite its simplicity and over obviousness in a few places, I was pretty impressed by this movie, over all. If you’re looking for something more sparingly paced and with much less explosions or car chases than the regular pictures playing in movie houses at the moment, you could do a lot worse than spend an evening in the company of this film. A strong recommendation from me for a film with characters that have a sturdy moral code by which they live their life... something not always found in the murky world of espionage, to be honest.

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