It seems that if you want to translate a John le Carré novel to the screen properly these days, you need to hire a woman named Sue to direct it. Susanne Bier did a cracking job with the recent BBC series The Night Manager, and now Susanna White has picked up the baton with this gripping adaptation of Our Kind of Traitor.
That's not the only similarity it shares with The Night Manager, though. Our Kind of Traitor is also about an ordinary man – in this case, British university professor Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) – who finds himself accidentally drawn into the world of espionage. While on holiday in Marrakech with his barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris), Perry is befriended by charismatic Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a highly-ranked moneyman for the Russian mafia. The mob – with the help of some corrupt British MPs (most likely Tories) – is setting up a bank in London to launder mafia funds, and Dima wants Perry to pass on a list of names to the British Secret Services. Dima is keen to bring down the mob and put a stop to the bank, but he needs to make a deal with MI6 to have his family smuggled out of Russia and hidden from the mob – and Perry has to convince agent Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis) that Dima is for real.
We're not venturing into Bond or Bourne territory here. Le Carré spy thrillers are traditonally more quiet, thoughtful affairs, and Our Kind of Traitor does not break the mould. Action is kept to a minimum – no car chases, just the one exploding helicopter and the sole running gun battle, in the Feench Alps, is heard, not seen. Which is a nice touch, and kudos to White for that. A male director would have surely shown us the gunfight in full glory, with bullets flying, blood spurting and loads of slo-mo. Here, White's approach is intriguing and refreshing. She's definitely a director to keep an eye on, with Traitor only her second feature film – although she does have a solid TV predigree, having worked on Teachers, Bleak House, Jane Eyre, Generation Kill, Boardwalk Empire and Billions. And she gets fine performances out of this cast, although with the likes of McGregor, Harris, Skarsgård, Lewis, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Northam on board – plus a smart, well-paced script from Hossein Amini, who also wrote Drive – it can't be all that hard.
McGregor is perfect as the ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary situation (there are shades of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much and North By Northwest here), and the always-watchable Skarsgård shines as the ebullient Russian heavy. The bond that develops between these two men is always believable and somewhat endearing. There's also a fascinating dynamic between McGregor and Harris, as a couple who are having some marriage problems and who have taken a holiday in an attempt to get things back on track. Throw in Lewis's thoughtful, posh-spoken spook plus Northam's slimy politician (yep, I'm sure he's a Tory) and you've got an absolute dream team to w atch on the screen.
Our Kind of Traitor is a terrific character-driven drama that serves its source material well. If you're a fan of Le Carré, or simply love a well-made British thriller, then this is your kind of traitor too.