The novels of John le Carré seem to inspire a very specific kind of movie adaptation, and as fans of The Russia House (1990), The Tailor of Panama (2001), The Constant Gardener (2005), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and A Most Wanted Man (2014) would tell you, it’s because John Le Carré writes a very specific type of novel. Cerebral, methodical, and meticulously procedural spy thrillers, his are works in which spies, secret agents, and operatives on various sides of the political spectrum do battle not with machine guns or bombs, but with brains, ingenuity, and old-fashioned craftiness.
The latest in the (surprisingly impressive) list of John le Carré adaptations is Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor, a complex but not-too-confusing espionage thriller that features Ewan McGregor as an average Joe who finds himself embroiled in a political tug-of-war between British spies and Russian criminals–and quickly comes to realize that it’s not always easy to tell who the villains are in this sticky scenario. The key element here is the slick, smart screenplay (by Hossein Amini) which not only assumes its audience is intelligent enough to follow a dense plot laden with twists and turns, but is also accessible enough to enjoy without having to take notes on who is presently betraying whom, and (perhaps more importantly) why.
Like most John le Carré movies, Our Kind of Traitor is a handsome and well-polished piece of filmmaking, and the film earns a strong shot in the arm from its more-than-capable ensemble cast. McGregor is as strong as ever, here playing a well-intentioned man who has seemingly wandered into a secret war of attrition between two shady, suspicious factions. Stellan Skarsgard, as an intimidating but seemingly earnest Russian crime boss who desperately wants to get his family out of Russia, practically steals the whole film, and top-notch support work is provided by the likes of Naomie Harris as McGregor’s loyal wife and reluctant partner-in-espionage, Damian Lewis as a (seemingly) trustworthy British operative, and Jeremy Northam as a shady character who may be playing both sides of the fence. Even during the movie’s drier spots, the cast does a solid job of keeping things interesting.
This enjoyably tangled adaptation falls short in one department, and it’s that of basic character development. McGregor and Harris are very good as two “nobodies” who find themselves “befriended” by spies and crime lords alike, and surrounded by international intrigue, but their roles seem oddly under-developed. While the supporting players all exhibit some sort of edge, color, or attitude, our reluctant heroes come off as slightly, well, bland.
If you’re looking for something full of car chases, bloody scrapes, and superhuman escapes, you’ll want to stick to the more action-heavy spy movies featuring James Bond, Jack Ryan, or Jason Bourne. But if you’re in the mood for a smart, mellow, handsomely shot, and quietly engaging espionage story, Our Kind of Traitor should easily fit the bill–especially if you’re a fan of all those other John le Carré adaptations.
(3.5 out of 5 sneaky, untrustworthy burritos)
Image: Roadside Attractions