Our Kind of Traitor

Movie Information

The Story: A British couple on holiday in Marrakech become involved in espionage and intrigue. The Lowdown: Reasonably cerebral thrills are to be found in this latest transfer of a John le Carré novel to the screen. Solid entertainment with Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris as appealing leads and Stellan Skarsgård and Damian Harris in scene-stealing support.
Genre: Spy Thriller
Director: Susanna White
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Naomie Harris, Damian Harris, Mark Stanley, Jeremy Northam
Rated: R



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.


Our Kind Of Traitor


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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “Our Kind of Traitor

  1. William Maynard

    An excellent review of a novel I very much enjoyed (and what appears to be le Carre’s penultimate book). Nice to see that an old fashioned intelligent approach to film-making can still surface amidst the sea of $200 million CGI epics for the undiscriminating perpetual adolescent. I will make an effort to catch this. Thank you, Mr. Hanke.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      Indeed…but there are others on here who’ve seen it who’d be glad to discuss it with you.

  2. Big Al

    The old chestnut goes “The book is always better”, and as an avid reader I tend to agree, with the sole exception of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, for which the author also wrote the screenplay, so the better chestnut would be “Practice makes Perfect”. I do, however appreciate films that are able to adapt the more detail-oriented and omniscient literary form into a compressed yet cogent cinematic form. “The Hunt for Red October ” and “Cold Mountain” come immediately to mind. I did not read “Our Kind of Traitor”, but I found the film mostly pointless and too predictable.

    The head spy is not trusted by his bosses and runs a shoestring operation with two idealistic civilians to rescue a family from their husband’s life of perfidy and getting the goods on corrupt British traitors, OK I get that. Once you extract the 30 minutes or so that it takes to establish this, the only thing left is to determine when the gangster gets offed and by whom, and how his information still manages to get into the hands of the good guys. All so predictable that had I not been watching this alone, I would have spent half of the film whispering ” Watch this…”

    There were a lot of unanswered questions, though: If it is so easy to blow up a helicopter chartered by MI-6, why send a bunch of gangsters with guns first? And seeing as how the gangster died without reaching London to prove his worthiness, why did London allow his family in anyway? I feel like the closer the film came to an ending, the more details got shoved aside to get it all over with, which is pretty much how I felt by that time in my viewing of the film.

    I suspect the book kept these details intact, but as with the aforementioned works, surely there was a way to fit them in, maybe by cutting back on some of the lengthier exposition at the front end? I was pretty disappointed, especially after having enjoyed “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man”.

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