Our Kind of Traitor: Leave or Remain, by David Bax
This week’s release of Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor makes the film more pointed and momentous than could have possibly been intended. As a British film (based on a John le Carré novel) that makes hay out of on-location filming in multiple European countries, it’s exactly the kind of movie that’s going to become less easy to make post-Brexit. But even beneath such pragmatic concerns, White uses the familiar everyman-turned-spy setup to launch a deeper investigation into Britain’s identity as a major international player that holds less power than it used to and endeavors to wield it against more amorphous enemies. Even the title itself prepares the viewer to wade into the moral murk.
Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris star as a married couple, Perry and Gail, whom the opening scenes find on a tense and unhappy vacation in Marrakesh, attempting to right a marriage derailed by infidelity. Left alone by Gail in a restaurant one night, Perry is invited to the table of Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a gregarious Russian. Over the next couple of days, the two become friends of a sort, mostly because Perry is helpless to resist Dima’s imposing manner. Eventually, Dima draws Perry aside and confides that he is a money launderer for the Russian mob, that his life and those of his beloved family are in danger and that he will provide information to MI6 about British MPs who deal with his bosses in return for asylum. Thus Perry and Gail are drawn into the intelligence game, teaming up with an agent (Damian Lewis) to not only protect Dima’s family but to expose corruption, despite resistance from a government official (Jeremy Northam) who would prefer this information stay hidden and an MI6 higher-up (Mark Gatiss) who would simply rather not rock the boat.
In addition to its Moroccan first act, Our Kind of Traitor takes place in London, Paris, the French Alps and Bern, Switzerland. This pan-European odyssey is all beautifully photographed by the great Anthony Dod Mantle (The Celebration, Slumdog Millionaire). While Mantle’s color timing evokes the classical, luxurious tradition of well-appointed spy movies, his trademark attention to detail keeps things grounded and tactile.
One of the flourishes to which White and Mantle repeatedly return is the use of shots that replicate blurred vision, sometimes from an unspecified POV. For some of these, the reasoning seems straightforward; characters are incapacitated by drugs or drink. At other times, the effect is more figurative. Perhaps it’s fear or adrenaline or love that temporarily blinds people. In every case, though, what’s clear is that it’s not just eyesight that is clouded; it is morality itself. Whether characters want altruistically to help or selfishly just to win, they keep finding themselves in places where allegiances must be compromised and relationships must be manipulated. No one comes out smelling like roses but at least you can tell the bad guys by looking for the ones who aren’t too torn up about it.
Despair not, though; Our Kind of Traitor isn’t always a grim account of blighted ethics. It’s also an international spy thriller and, luckily, White proves more than equal to the genre. Being a le Carré story, it’s far less about action than it is about the friction between meticulous plans and common unpredictability. The Bern sequence, in which multiple teams of agents must coordinate to extract members of Dima’s family from different parts of the city simultaneously is a master class in tension, ramping it up while never bursting the suspension of disbelief. When Dima’s wife pauses to frantically remove her heels before making the final run to the van that will take her to safety, it’s realistic and logical. Yet those few moments of stasis seem to expand long enough to stop your heart beating while you wait for the Russians to catch up to her.
Long before Britain’s isolating move toward populist nationalism, it was already, like much of the Western world, venturing into a young century more shaky than the one before it. It’s less apparent now who is good, who is bad and what it might even mean to be one of those things. Our Kind of Traitor reflects this in a way even more timely than anticipated and, despite a plot that’s not terribly original, it has a ripping good time doing it.
It was very surprising, David, to hear you react in the middle of the podcast to the Brexit news – I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘live’ news reaction there before. This is a fine review. Your mention of the character removing her heels reminds me of a favourite moment from Alien when Siggy Weaver takes a moment to tie her hair up just before blowing up the Nostromo. Very human.