“Our Kind of Traitor” (2016)
(1hr 48min, dir. Susanna White, adapted from John Le Carré’s 2010 novel)
This is a 21st-century rendition of the classic cold-war defector story, with an English teacher as the reluctant hero!
College professor Ewan McGregor and his barrister wife Naomie Harris are vacationing in Marrakech. They meet Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a charming and charismatic Russian oligarch who’s also the chief accountant for the Russian mafia. Dima is scheduled to sign over his accounts to the Prince, a titular head of state who’s also the mafia boss.
Trouble is, the last accountant who signed over his accounts was slaughtered, along with his family. So Dima wants to get his family to the West. He gives McGregor a thumb drive to take back to London. It’s got enough financial data to get MI6 interested. Dima will reveal the rest when his family is safe in England. But both the mobsters and some of the British have their reasons to squash the deal. Unlike the usual defector stories, Dima and McGregor are rogue. They can’t rely on the abundant resources of the British government. Dima talks only to McGregor only, and McGregor’s only British contact is Damian Lewis, the MI6 agent.
Restricting the focus to these few characters provides an intimate dimension to the defector story. In the classics of the genre, such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Funeral in Berlin, the suspense comes from the grand game of uncertainty about the motives of the defector. Is he for real, or a double agent? But in this case we seem to know that Dima is for real. The real suspense is about logistics – how can McGregor and his skeleton crew get Dima’s family to London with the mafia all around? The mob soldiers follow Dima everywhere he goes, even to the bathroom.
This non-postmodern story is told in a straight-ahead way, without snark, CGI, earth-shaking action scenes or jarring jump cuts. Some reviewers found it to be too slow. But as an espionage fan I relished every moment, perhaps giving more credit than is due. I found it to be a leisurely case of espionage writ small. The narrative deconstructs the classic cold-war dichotomies such as communism vs. capitalism, professional vs. amateur, government vs. private, East vs. West, and good vs. evil. The suspense is personal, not institutional.
Ewan McGregor’s professor is bland, plodding and blokeish. Naomie Harris plays her accessory role with gravitas, as though she were in practice for a more substantial part. She’s made to look a decade older than her Bondish Miss Moneypenny. Even though Stellan Skarsgård is Swedish, not Russian, his Dima is convincing. He’s flamboyant, irreverent, brave and likeable. He steals every scene he’s in. Damian Lewis’s MI6 agent Hector sports spectacles and a raincoat. With his accessories and his disobedient attitude he evokes George Smiley, Le Carré’s great spymaster from the cold-war books.
If you’re in the mood for a quiet, cerebral spy movie, this one fills the bill.