John le Carré’s typical protagonists are the real-life, unglamorous counterparts of James Bond, thankless MI6 bureaucrats who dispatch their enemies and protect Her Majesty’s allies with internal memos rather than outlandish gadgets and superheroic derring-do. And sometimes they’re naïfs that unwittingly get caught up in international crimes or political intrigues beyond their comprehension. Susanna White’s adaptation of Our Kind of Traitor provides us with both kinds of heroes in a story that zigzags across Europe and North Africa, functioning almost like a “Best of le Carré” to both satisfy longtime fans and attract the uninitiated.
A pungent political melodrama about the infiltration of the Russian mafia into the highest echelons of British politics and finance, the film works as both a modern morality play for our globalized world and as an indictment of Europe’s ethical bankruptcy. Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a money launderer for the Russian mafia, befriends a British literature professor, Perry (Ewan McGregor), on holiday in Marrakech and convinces him to pass sensitive information to the MI6 in exchange for political asylum for Dima and his family, whose lives are threatened by the Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin), Dima’s psychotic new boss. Playing the unheralded MI6 foil to Perry’s virtuous naïf is Hector (Damian Lewis), the woefully underfunded spymaster who goes behind his superiors’ backs to bring Dima and his information, which would compromise some of the nation’s most powerful men, to Britain.
It works as both a modern morality play for our globalized world and as an indictment of Europe’s ethical bankruptcy.
Opening in the U.S. a week after the Brexit vote, the film addresses issues that the referendum raised about Britain’s relationship with the European Union: the effect of the EU’s problems on the U.K.; who should be allowed to enter the island nation; national economic and political sovereignty; and Russian interference in European affairs. Le Carré’s Russian villains are far more nuanced than those in similar European-set thrillers, running the entire gamut of the moral spectrum. As in A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor exhibits the author’s command of the contemporary European political landscape, making the recent 007 films and their knockoffs appear woefully cartoonish in comparison. The film, in the end, has more in common with classic crime dramas of conscience like The Third Man and A Touch of Evil, which are referenced in a kaleidoscopic action sequence in Bern’s Einstein Museum that cleverly combines the climactic chase sequences of those films.
However, unlike in more successful le Carré adaptations, White cannot resist the urge to exoticize the film’s settings, undermining the story’s emphasis on mundane details and regular people as the real driving forces of historical change. While le Carré’s vision of Russia emphasizes Leo Tolstoy’s idea that it’s the unsung everyman that drives the course of history, White often relies on empty spectacle to drive the narrative. Pretty Russians are elegantly murdered in picturesque settings, which does nothing to detract from the alluring picture drawn by the filmmakers of the European high life unavailable to audiences. These elements may cheaply provide vicarious thrills for the viewer, but they do a disservice to le Carré larger themes of personal responsibility and moral fortitude in an ethically ambivalent world. White does somewhat make up for such moments with an effective scene portraying the violence and despair of the lower depths in a Parisian banlieue, a jolt of stark realism that reveals the evil underlying the mafia’s alluring exterior.
Himself a former MI6 agent, le Carré is interested in the way governments and individuals balance self-interest with the moral obligation to fight evil, which Hector (clearly a stand-in for the author) describes as an absolute human quality, independent of circumstance. No moral relativist, Hector indicts the moral and ethical failure of the British government to stem the tide of blood money and black profits into the nation in the film’s show-stopping climactic speech. Our Kind of Traitor doubles down on this moral outrage in a coda showing Perry walking against the human tide crossing the London Bridge, an invocation of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, reminding us that evil might not flourish as long as there are good men willing to fight it.