John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor is one of his later, perhaps lesser books, but it’s one that really spoke to me, so I was eager to see it adapted to the screen. The result is certainly compelling and attractive, but somehow off; it makes an odd decision here, takes an unfortunate liberty there, and never quite captures the novel’s heart, ultimately doing it partial justice.
Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is an English professor, on vacation in Marrakech with his lawyer girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris), attempting to save their troubled relationship. The holiday takes an unexpected turn when Perry’s path crosses with Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a boisterous Russian who cheerfully maneuvers himself into Perry and Gail’s holiday plans. In fact, it’s a recruitment: Dima is a money man for the Russian mafia, and he knows his superiors are getting ready to kill him off for knowing too much. In desperation, Dima asks Perry to take a message back to MI-6, hoping the British will help him and his family defect. Perry agrees to deliver the message, but this simple involvement evolves into something far more entangling, as both he and Gail become emotionally invested in the plight of their Russian acquaintance and his family.
Our Kind of Traitor, the novel, boasts all the furious political anger of le Carré’s later work. But it mitigates the inherent darkness of its worldview by presenting an unlikely created family, which comes together in inspiring defiance of it. It’s perhaps the film’s biggest failure, to me, that director Susanna White and screenwriter Hossein Amini downplay this most winning aspect of the book, in favor of more a streamlined Hollywood structure and symbology. Our Kind of Traitor, the film, is very much Perry’s story, making this a Ewan MacGregor vehicle rather than the ensemble piece I was craving. Skarsgård’s turn as the blustering, profane Dima is award-worthy stuff, and Damian Lewis is entertainingly venomous as espiocrat Hector Meredith. The supporting cast, consisting of many important viewpoint characters in the novel, is largely relegated to the sidelines. Most egregious is the wasting of Naomie Harris; in the source material, Gail is every bit an equally invested partner in the adventure, but her character is retooled to generate marital strife and her heroism is incidental to Perry’s manly coming-of-age journey. What makes this all the more disappointing is that le Carré is an author not known for particularly well done female characters. He actually does better than usual in Our Kind of Traitor, only to see the adaptation render the women nominal to the action, if not downright mute. Not exactly a feather in Hollywood’s cap.
Granted, much of my dissatisfaction is borne of my enthusiasm for the source material, so it likely won’t bother the casual viewer with a fondness for slick, spy fare. There’s plenty to enjoy in the film’s gripping plot and gorgeous international scenery. Skarsgård alone is worth the price of admission, and the Dima-Perry friendship is charming and exceptionally realized. Some screenwriting choices are problematic, but the structural bones are sound, and the changes to the ending introduce some hope to an otherwise bleak scenario. But ultimately, I can’t help but feel a little bit let down: Our Kind of Traitor looks very much like the film I wanted it to be, but shaped by creatives with a much different take on the story and what makes it worth telling. In the end, for me, this make it diverting but inessential.