Extremely entertaining, wonderfully well-acted, effectively tense — and blessedly offering Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris something worth doing for a change — Susanna White’s film of John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor is undeniably refreshing as something intelligent for adults. It is also a bit on the regressive side — something of a movie out of its time, like a Cold War story in search of a Cold War that no longer exists. It’s like the modern James Bond pictures (minus the trademark overkill) in that regard. This is not a bad thing as such, but it bears remembering. In other words, this is no Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), nor is it The Tailor of Panama (2001), a work that skewered post-Cold War espionage (and James Bond) movies with surgical precision and a wicked laugh. This is more of a throwback that replaces the KGB with Russian gangsters and corrupt international finance.
The story in Our Kind of Traitor is fairly stock. In fact, there’s a little of the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much clinging to the edges. A holiday-making Brit couple — university professor Perry (Ewan McGregor) and high-powered barrister Gail (Naomie Harris) — in Marrakech, Morocco, find themselves at the center of a situation involving a well-heeled money launderer for the Russian mafia, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who likes to throw his wealth around. (Russian gangsters seem to have become the default setting for bad guys these days.) Fearing that his life — and, more importantly, the lives of his children — are in danger from these criminals, Dima wants to trade information to the British for asylum.
Perry unknowingly happens to fit the bill (for a humorously pragmatic reason revealed late in the film) and is most certainly no match for the over-the-top, force-of-nature Russian-ness that marks Dima. (Skarsgård plays Dima like Oscar Homolka’s Colonel Stok in the 1960s Harry Palmer movies, but with no Soviet ideals and even fewer social graces.) Before Perry — and, by extension, Gail — know what has hit them, they are in deep waters, caught between Dima and MI6 operative Hector (Damian Lewis), who may be more familiar than Dima but is perhaps even less trustworthy. And, if he personally isn’t less trustworthy, the Brit government may be, since corruption runs deep.
Much of the appeal in a movie like this lies in the unexpected twists and turns and double-crossing, so it’s perhaps best to set the rest of the plot aside at this point. This is le Carré, and that means that underneath everything is the question of trust — and trust is in short supply these days, especially in the world of Our Kind of Traitor. It appears that no one trusts anyone, and this extends to just how much (or how little) Gail trusts Perry. That may even be a two-way street, since her successful and wealthy barrister career puts Perry’s material status clearly in the shade. Even when someone has won your trust, you can’t be sure that those he is relying on are playing a fair game. The film exists in an atmosphere where duplicity breeds duplicity and the only chance of winning, breaking even or just not getting killed may require being just as shady as the next fellow. These are the elements that keep the film from being just another thriller. It operates on a moral center in a world that has none.
Don’t mistake this for a major event. It’s not one. It’s unlikely to appear on any 10-best lists. It’s certainly not Oscar material (for what that’s worth). But it is unusually intelligent fare. The action is exciting and the thrills are genuine. That it affords us characters we can like and relate to increases the stakes considerably. At bottom, it’s just a really good time at the movies that may not stay with you, but will entertain you while it’s onscreen and won’t insult your intelligence. Rated R for violence, language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemark and Fine Arts Theatre.