“Our Kind of Traitor,” Hossein Amini’s brilliant adaptation of John LeCarré’s novel directed by Susanna White, is breathtaking in every sense of the word from first moment to last.
Opening on a dancer in mid-aerial pirouette, impossibly muscled, impossibly athletic, impossibly daring, White establishes her plot and characters immediately with this metaphoric solo.
While wives and children enjoy the performance, the male hierarchy of a sophisticated corporation are conducting their own balancing act in a private room at the Moscow Ballet to witness the transfer of assets from one member to the leader who presents a family heirloom, a pearl handled gun, to the loyal employee. Later that evening, returning from Moscow with his wife and daughter, the loyal employee will be executed and the gun returned to its owner. This is but the beginning of a betrayal that will set in motion actions that will eventually resonate all the way to the highest offices in Great Britain.
In Marrakesh, Perry, a London University poetry professor, and his stunning wife Gail, a successful barrister, are attempting, somewhat unsuccessfully, to rekindle their romance. Distracted and simultaneously amused and annoyed by the raucous party of Russians at a nearby table, they argue and Gail abruptly leaves. Dima, the loudest and most outrageous of the group spontaneously asks Perry to join them. Intrigued, the rather withdrawn Perry uncharacteristically agrees and is instantly drawn into a white night of Chateau Petrus, beautiful women, and Russian Mafiosi. Witnessing an assault, Perry courageously, albeit foolishly, throws himself against the gigantic tattooed rapist. Coming to his rescue is Dima who, having reassessed the milquetoast Perry, begs a favor. He is the self-proclaimed biggest money launderer in the world; the “accountant” for the Russian Mafia run by a man known as the Prince Nicolas Petrov and he is willing to turn over all the information he has so he can gain asylum for himself and his family. The Prince, with assistance from corrupt British politicians will soon be opening a branch of his international bank in London thereby increasing his money laundering resources enormously. In the next several weeks he will be asked to sign over all the accounts he holds to the Prince and, Dima knows, it is his death warrant just as it was for his predecessor. He hands Perry a memory stick and asks him to get it to MI-6.
The normally cautious Perry agrees, shielding Gail from this information. But protecting Gail was for naught as they both end up being caught in a net by Hector, an upper level MI-6 section leader. Soon Perry and the resentful Gail are immersed in a web of intrigue, vengeance, petty politics and murder that takes them from London to Paris to Bern and hidden locations in the Alps. Civilian operatives recruited by Hector, they are unaware that he is running an unsanctioned operation that has more than a whiff of personal agenda. The former head of his section, Aubry Longrigg, successfully eluded corruption charges brought by Hector and in return made sure that Hector suffered a personal tragedy. It is Longrigg who is suspected of fronting the Prince’s operation in London. Betrayal and danger is around every corner but Perry and eventually Gail will do all they can against unwinnable odds to save the outrageously endearing Dima and his family.
This is classic LeCarré territory and Amini has adapted a book that many believed to have been one of the writer’s finest since the end of the Cold War. What makes Amini’s work so extraordinary is that he has been able to make it so cinematic, one in which the settings become characters whether it is the Moscow Ballet or the Swiss Alps, they all are part of the interaction between events and the pawns acting out the chess game in progress, for in LeCarré, everyone is a pawn hopelessly trudging to the inevitable fall of the edge of the board.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this film is how the construction is rooted in films of the 1930s and 40s. Consider, for example, “The Ministry of Fear” and “The Third Man,” films based on Graham Greene’s novels where the previously non-committal, ordinary everyman is thrown into a nefarious plot of intrigue and must rise to the occasion to save mankind, or at least something to that extent. The classic Hitchcock films “Foreign Correspondent,” “The Man Who Knew too Much” “The Lady Vanishes” and “The 39 Steps” are but a few among his many that follow that basic plot line. Do it well and it is something new to be discovered again and Susanna White and Hossein Amini have done “Our Kind of Traitor” very very well.
Attention must be paid to Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography. An Academy Award winner for “Slumdog Millionaire,” Mantle’s camera captures the heat and decadent beauty of Marrakesh, the punctiliousness of ministerial London, and the terror of the night and cold beauty of the day in Switzerland, all important background players in this tale of conspiracy and collusion.
In equal importance to the brilliant direction and writing of “Our Kind of Traitor” is the impeccable casting of the film. White has masterfully put together a group who are as effective with silence as they are with dialogue. Leading the ensemble, whose whole ends up being actually greater than the marvelous parts, is Ewan McGregor adding another believable everyman to his already deep reserve that includes memorable parts in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” and “Ghost Writer.” McGregor makes you ache for his flaws and pull for his small victories. Playing opposite him is the beautiful Naomie Harris as Gail whose counterpoint sharpness to McGregor’s softness makes her gradual melting all the more believable. That White relied on seamless colorblind casting for this role increased the depth of the performance.
The always interesting Damian Lewis rides the razor sharp edge of villain and hero very effectively. Jeremy Northam in the small but pivotal role of the corrupt politician communicates his upper class supercilious superiority and invincibility with a minimum of dialogue. Everyone else is marvelous but sharing the lead with McGregor is the wonderful Stellan Skarsgaard as the over-the-top Dima. Skarsgaard becomes one with the scenery-chewing, larger than life, too much of everything Dima and brings John LeCarré’s character to life and then some. Whatever your feelings about Skarsgaard’s interpretation of this role, it will be impossible not to embrace him.
Go see this film as an antidote to the adolescent tentpoles arriving at the multiplexes; go see this film because of the intrigue, thrills, and exciting performances, but go see this excellent film.
Opening Friday July 1 at the Landmark 12, Burbank Town Center 8, Town Center 5 in Encino and the Playhouse 7 Cinemas in Pasadena