“What am I doing here?”
We received two John le Carré adaptations this year, each delivering high production value, effective performances, and somewhat weak plotting. Susanne Bier‘s The Night Manager provides a “hero” between worlds—not a bona fide spy as in A Most Wanted Man or Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, not a regular man at his rope’s end willing to do whatever’s necessary a la The Constant Gardener. Surface appearances presume to be the latter except for the fact he has military training and a penchant for killing despite a lack of time to earn its justification. Tom Hiddleston plays Jonathan Pine perfectly, but the character renders the miniseries undercooked in its rush to create a strong protagonist. Susanna White‘s Our Kind of Traitor does the opposite. Her “hero” is a patsy.
Here’s the thing, though: I’d rather a patsy than a false God. le Carré’s words as adapted by Hossein Amini lays his Perry’s (Ewan McGregor) motivations on thick, but at least his actions don’t ignore his inexperience or fear. Throughout the story his new “friend” Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) showers him with praise for being an honorable man. A Russian mobster who admits to killing a man in his youth and has no qualms with his amoral deeds because he believes he too has honor singles this British poetics professor out for help because he has nowhere else to turn and because Perry looks like a pushover. Dima watches his wife (Naomie Harris‘ Gail) leave him at a fancy restaurant to take a work call and the resulting dejection.
What the Russian doesn’t know, however, is that this sense of disappointment isn’t towards her all-busy, high-powered lawyer. No, Perry slept with a student sometime in the near past and she’s still working through her feelings and decision to forgive him. This trip to Marrakech was a bid to rekindle romance and he has yet to fully earn back her trust. So Perry is far from the honorable man Dima believes him to be, but he’s highly motivated to show his wife that he can become that person again. He’s still the kind of guy to punch a murderer twice his size for raping a woman without thinking about the potential consequences as well as someone with conviction and empathy, exactly what Dima needs to save his family.
The crux of the plot is that the Russian mob has passed the torch to the old guard’s son known here as “The Prince” (Grigoiy Dobrygin). He’s shrewdly in the midst of laundering his money on a global scale by enlisting traitorous partners such as British government agent Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam) to invest in his Arena Bank as it goes public in a bid for legitimacy. To do so he needs his father’s money managers to sign over the books as a symbolic gesture of retirement. Unfortunately for them, greener pastures only last so long before The Prince’s men move in with automatic weapons, silencing them for good. Is it convenient that this green leader looks to dispatch them separately so Dima can see what’s coming? Absolutely.
But it isn’t unforgivable since his assumption that he’s next is the entire point of the film. le Carré may have been able to come up with something a little less contrived, but hindsight is twenty-twenty. We accept this train of thought because we might as well leave the theater if we cannot. These are the circumstances that lead Dima to give Perry a flash-drive of information for MI-6 to evaluate and draw up papers to give him, his family, and the surviving orphans of The Prince’s first casualty asylum. Perry is a conduit, a Hail Mary pass for salvation that needs to get the win just as much as the man whose head is on the chopping block. Perry is our entry point into the chaos.
Our Kind of Traitor‘s real drama therefore comes from the relationship between Dima and Hector (Damian Lewis), the British intelligence agent who will stop at nothing to bring The Prince and by proximity Longrigg (there’s a personal grudge at work) down. He’s a man with limited resources, lying to his second-in-command Luke (Khalid Abdalla from the grossly under-rated The Kite Runner) about the mission being sanctioned by their boss (Mark Gatiss‘ Matlock) and to Perry about Dima’s family being assured safety. The question becomes who will blink first: Hector after being caught in the lie or Dima knowing he has one opportunity to escape signing his own death warrant. Perry and Gail stay to assist, but like us they’re hopeful bystanders. They’re out of their depth.
And this is exactly why the film worked for me. Perry doesn’t suddenly become a bad ass on a quest to save the world as a one-man wreaking crew. He’s afraid of his situation’s escalating danger and wants nothing to do with the gun that eventually ends up in his hand. The tension is as much about whether luck will keep him alive as it is saving Dima. Their lives become intertwined, contingent on each other while The Prince and his consigliere (Velibor Topic) loom overhead to decipher whether they’ve been played. Dima’s family becomes his greatest asset and his worst liability, Hector’s black and white sense of good and evil is tested, and Perry is afforded the chance to remind his wife whom it was she married.
Harris is great as Gail, ensuring the character isn’t forgotten amongst the men with subtle acts of confident strength showing she’s by far the stronger of the two civilians. McGregor embraces the wide-eyed patsy well: gullible enough to continue doing as he’s told, but kind-hearted enough to not care he’s being used as long as it’s for the right reasons. Lewis’ robotically calm Hector is fantastically British, his emotions so imperceptible that we only really see his frustrated disappointment. And Skarsgård’s Dima is perfectly boisterous and deflective to hold his cover when facing certain extinction. White might render this quartet’s climax melodramatic in its obviousness, but at least she finishes their story correctly with bittersweet success. Far from le Carré’s best, it’s still worth a look.
 Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård in OUR KIND OF TRAITOR. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk
 Naomie Harris, Damian Lewis and Ewan McGregor in OUR KIND OF TRAITOR. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk
 Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor in OUR KIND OF TRAITOR.
Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk