More noise than signal

Our Kind of Traitor

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Now, I don’t know about you lot, he said, knowing exactly what this lot as defined by the other people on this podcast think about the subject, but I loves me some John Le Carre adaptations, and his transition from intrigues at the height of the Cold War to contemporary subjects such as big business and terrorism has provided the story for some of my favourite films. I don’t think I’ve seen a film adaptation that I didn’t like, so I’m very much on-board for this Russian mafia based outing.

University lecturer Prof. Perry Makepiece (Ewan McGregor) is holidaying with his partner, high-ranking barrister Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris), in the hopes of repairing their relationship after Perry slept with a student. A veritable parade of further sources of stress appear once Perry befriends gregarious Russian Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who quickly shows off his eidetic memory in the same way that Chekhov might show you his guns. Quite why the one time Enterprise navigator is showing off his biceps is a question for another day. The sun’s not even out.

At any rate, after Perry and Dima develop a rapport, Dima asks him to convey a memory stick of information back to London for the attention of MI6. It turns out that Dima is a high ranking financial oligarch in the Russian mafia, who’s adept at seeing the writing on the wall. The new head of the mafia, “the Prince”, is in the process of setting up a bank in the City of London to act as a one stop money laundering facility, eliminating the need for the current system of thugs/accountants that Dima is part of, and if the experience of others is anything to go by, eliminating Dima himself after signing over control of the accounts he manages. Dima’s taking a desperate punt on being able to save his family, and hopefully him also, by trading the information on those British politicians receiving the bribes needed to grease the wheels of the bank’s creation for protection from his new boss.

Perry agrees, unbeknownst to Gail, who’s soon clued in once he’s taken aside at his own request at border control for a lengthy chat with MI6 agent Hector (Damien Lewis). While Perry hoped that handing this over would be the end of it, soon Hector’s asking for Perry’s help in gaining Dima’s trust by being present at a meeting he’s setting up in Paris. Hector is intrigued by the implication that their ex-boss, now MP Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam) is heavily involved, someone who Hector has long suspected of corruption but been unable to prove it, whom he also blames for having his son jailed on trumped up drugs charges having learned of his suspicion.

And, well, so it goes, without wanting to get too deep into the details which would only really be spoiling it for you, but suffice to say that Perry gets far more deeply involved in this than he anticipated, and Hector comes under great pressure to drop this investigation from his higher-ups, leading to him essentially running it as a borderline rogue operation, with far less backup than you’d like when extracting someone from a group so powerful and violent as the Bratva.

Like A Most Wanted Man before it, this is a very solid story told in an uncomplicated, non-flashy way that I suspect some people may find a little too sedate, given the subject matter, but happens to be directly up my alley. It doesn’t have the period trappings of the likes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to provide a hook, which is perhaps also peak Le Carre in terms of story, but that’s no barrier to my enjoyment of a really well told narrative.

Where it falls short in comparison to those mentioned is in the performances, which I must stress is not to say that they’re bad. McGregor and Skarsgård show great chemistry, and Skarsgård is particular gives a hugely enjoyable turn that’s boisterous, almost but not quite to the point of parody, making the Brits stereotypically reserved in comparison. In particular Lewis, who admittedly is an actor I’ve never been fond of – I’ve not forgiven him for 2003’s Dreamcatcher – is a little underwhelming in the George Smiley analogue role. Not bad, but it feels rather like he and to a lesser degree McGregor weren’t given much flavour to insert into the roles, making them a little bland – certainly compared to Skarsgård.

For all that, it’s not too important – I go to Le Carre’s work for the story and that’s delivered well here. Perhaps it’s a minor Le Carre work, but Le Carre on an off day is still more enjoyable for me than most other films, so it’s getting a recommendation from me. If you’re the sort of person who appreciates the slower burn of spycraft, as so elegantly described by us in our criminally under-appreciated February 2016 episode, going by the download stats, then this is a solid if unspectacular choice.