Skip to main content

Money has no smell as long as there's enough of it.

Our Kind of Traitor
(2016)

(SPOILERS) In which a poetry teacher with a hitherto untapped capacity for derring-do
 takes up arms against a sea of Russian mobsters, and by opposing ends (some of) them. Our Kind of Traitor, the latest John Le Carré adaptation derives from of one of his later novels (first published in 2010), and one gets a sense that, the further the author strays from first-hand knowledge and experience, the less effective his yarn spinning becomes.


Certainly, tackling the War on Terror in A Most Wanted Man made for a well-mounted but rather passé picture. In contrast. The sophisticated arms dealer of The Night Manager proved highly effective and fertile ground, but that novel was penned more than two decades ago, which may help explain its relative verisimilitude. Our Kind of Traitor finds Le Carré exploring Russian thugs buying legitimacy via the keepers of the British establishment, but is propelled by the most unlikely of Hitchcockian everymen, consequently struggling to balance its serious-mindedness with a Man Who Knew Too Much/ North by Northwest “Who knew?” resourceful protagonist.


However, if this is a core weakness in the scenario, its servicing by director Susanna White (best known for her TV work, from BBC prestige adaptions such as Bleak House and Parade’s End to HBO’s Generation Kill and Boardwalk Empire) is always highly accomplished. She proves particularly adept at the subjective experience, from an early interlude with Ewan McGregor’s (poetics lecturer) Perry Makepeace in Marrakech, as he gets progressively more squiffy while attending a depraved party with the convivial Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), Russian Mafia’s Number One money launderer, to a later, edgy sequence in which Alec Utgoff’s henchman stops off with Perry and his girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris) at a block of rundown Parisian flats to the accompaniment of inexorably building unease.


Dima, out of desperation, has picked Perry to be his contact with British Intelligence, his objective being safe passage for himself and his family (mostly his family) in exchange for the lowdown on the mob money financing a newly-approved London bank, a bank that has the endorsement of an assortment of British politicians due to get paid handsomely for their trouble (their ill-gotten gains nestling comfortably in those obligatory Swiss accounts).


As ever, Le Carré’s great strength is capturing the machinations within the corridors of power, where everyone has their own agenda, trustworthiness is foreign territory, and corruption is rife, be it in ways large or small, to positive or negative ends; this doesn’t manifested as cynicism on the author’s part, it’s simply the way the world turns. We know Damien Lewis’ Hector is a good guy, but is his quest to bring down the lynch-pin of the scheme, MP Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), in what becomes an unsanctioned mission, endangers everyone involved. And can his immediate superior Matlock (Mark Gatiss, eschewing the usual RP delivery) be trusted?


Le Carré met the inspiration for Dima in Moscow two decades before penning the novel, but the actual chap doesn’t sound remotely as endearing as his fictional counterpart, and much more like one of the gangsters who surround him. Skarsgård, sporting a long, flowing mane courtesy of the makeup department, is clearly enjoying himself as Dima, an exuberant bear hug of a man treading a precarious line of deception. He effortlessly takes charge of every scene he’s in, be it flashing McGregor in a locker room (it used to be Ewan who did all the flashing), beating a henchman half to death in a men’s room, or putting young mob pretender-to-the-empire Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin, boasting a big bushy beard that precedes him) in his place before a room full of peers.


Lewis also commands the attention, even if he dresses Hector like he’s just stepped out of a Harry Palmer picture and offers an accent akin to Dickie Attenborough wrestling a trapped Fruit Pastille.


McGregor and Harris are less notable, at least in part because their characters are so thin. Altruistic to a fault, they just want to help because their hearts bleed for the kids. And because Perry feels a curious kinship for Dima. So they throw themselves into mortal peril (and onto Hector’s team to break Dima from the mob’s clutches) when the mission is in danger of falling apart. That Hector isn’t going by the rule book, and that Dima has earlier insisted on their presence, doesn’t make their embroilment any more believable.


There’s a problem too with McGregor in the lead role, in that he has long since ceased to surprise as an actor. I possibly have the same weakness in hoping for the best from him as with Richard E Grant; in both cases its borne of goodwill based on a couple of performances more than two decades ago, and neither has made much of an impression in anything since. Ewan being so unassuming, and Perry being so dauntless, makes for a tenuous combination; a character of unremitting chivalry, albeit with a barely mustered skeleton in the closet, and who turns out to have few qualms about picking off goons in the French alps on the first occasion he picks up a gun (okay, just the one goon, but I’m sure he’d have shot up more given half the chance).


Even given the stretch involved, Our Kind of Traitor proves absorbing for much of its duration, mainly thanks to White’s good work. Right up until it looks as if they’ve got away with getting Dima et famille away, until they haven’t. Which leads to an uninspired retreat to a shack in the Alps, and that old chestnut of a character making a phone call that brings the dogs running. By the looks of it, Hossein Amini (who also has adaptations of works by Patricia Highsmith Thomas Hardy, Henry James and Elmore Leonard to his name) could have done with being a little less faithful to the original text, but I’m guessing that won’t happen too much now the the author’s offspring (through their production company The Ink Factory) are shepherding his works to the screen.


It’s unlikely that Our Kind of Traitor will satisfy anyone expecting another top-flight Le Carré in the wake of The Night Manager, although it’s definitely more audience-friendly than A Most Wanted Man. Still, the cottage industry of adaptations should keep ticking along nicely for the time being, just as long as there are enough successes like Manager and the Gary Oldman Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to balance the slightly less illustrious ones. I’m not sure The Ink Factory is best placed to steer their dad’s biopic to the screen, however; a little more distance from the central character might be in its best interests.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…