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…

I'm Mary Poppins, y'all.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Most of the time, we’ll settle for a solid, satisfying sequel, even if we’re naturally going to be rooting for a superlative one. Filmmakers are currently so used to invoking the impossible standard of The Empire Strikes Back/The Wrath of Khan, of advancing character and situation, going darker and encountering sacrifice, that expectations are inevitably tempered. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is indebted to at least some of those sequel tropes, although it’s arguably no darker than its predecessor, if more invested in character development. Indeed, for a series far more rooted (grooted?) in gags than any other in the Marvel wheelhouse, it’s ironic that its characterisations thus far have been consistently more satisfyingly realised than in any of their other properties.

Perhaps the most significant aspect writer-director James Gunn is clearly struggling with here is how to keep things fresh knowing he’s developed an instantly satisfyin…

Courage is no match for an unfriendly shoe, Countess…

I can't lie to you about your chances, but... you have my sympathies.

"Predalien" The Alien-Predator-verse ranked
Fox got in there with the shared universe thing long before the current trend. Fortunately for us, once they had their taste of it, they concluded it wasn’t for them. But still, the Predator and Alien franchises are now forever interconnected, and it better justifies a ranking if you have more than six entries on it. So please, enjoy this rundown of the “Predalien”-verse. SPOILERS ensue…
11. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
An almost wilfully wrongheaded desecration of both series’ legacies that attempts to make up for AVP’s relative prurience by being as transgressive as possible. Chestbursters explode from small children! Predaliens impregnate pregnant mothers! Maternity wards of babies are munched (off-screen admittedly)! It’s as bad taste as possible, and that’s without the aesthetic disconnect of the Predalien itself, the stupidest idea the series has seen (and that includes the newborn), one that was approved/encouraged by ra…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Slice him where you like, a hellhound is always a hellhound.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.1: Jeeves Saves the Cow Creamer
(aka The Silver Jug) Season Two of Jeeves and Wooster continues the high standard of the previous year’s last two episodes, appropriately since it takes after its literary precedent; Season One ended with a two-part adaptation of Right Ho, Jeeves, which PG Wodehouse followed four years later with The Code of the Woosters. Published in 1938, it was the third full-length outing for Bertie and his genius gentleman’s gentleman, and the first time Plum visited Totleigh Towers, home of imperious nerve specialist Sir Watykn Bassett. If I say “Spode”, and add “Eulalie”, its classic status in the canon will no doubt come flooding back to you.

Sir Watkyn has already graced our screens, of course, in the very first episode, adapting Bertram Wilberforce’s recollection from this very The Code of the Woosters of his policeman’s hat-stealing incident, and for the most part, like the season finale before it, Clive Exton recognises a good thing when he …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

You see, Mr. Bond, I always thought I liked animals. And then I discovered I liked killing people even more.

"Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair."

Alien: Covenant (2017)
(SPOILERS) In tandem with the release of increasingly generic-looking promotional material for Alien: Covenant, a curious, almost-rehabilitation of its predecessor’s rocky legacy seemed to occur, as some of its many naysayers were given to observe, “Well, at least Prometheus was trying something different”. It seems Sir Ridders can’t win: damned if he breaks new ground, damned if he charts a familiar course. The result is a compromise, and boy, does Covenant feel burdened by that at times. Still, those worried it would renege on Prometheus can relax in at least one important regard: Covenant is at least as stupid in terms of character motivation. And, for this reviewer, in another respect: I liked it a lot, or rather, I liked a lot of it, despite myself.

Screenwriter John Logan persuaded Scott to follow the path of more trad-Alien antics, so it would be interesting to learn how different things might have been before that course reset (he told Scott “Look, I love…

Jeeves, you really are the specific dream rabbit.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.2: A Plan for Gussie  (aka The Bassetts’ Fancy Dress Ball)
The cow creamer business dispatched, the second part of this The Code of the Woosters adaptation preoccupies itself with further Gussie scrapes, and the continuing machinations of Stiffy. Fortunately, Spode is still about to make things extra unpleasant.

Sir Roderick delivers more of his winning policies (“the Right to be issued with a British bicycle and an honest, British-made umbrella”) and some remarkably plausible-sounding nonsense political soundbites (“Nothing stands between us and victory except our defeat!”, “Tomorrow is a new day; the future lies ahead!”) while Jeeves curtly dismisses Spode trying to tag him as one of the working masses. It’s in Spode’s ability to crush skulls that we’re interested, though, and it looks as if his powers have deserted him at the start.

Jeeves has given Gussie a pep-talk in how to get over his terror of Spode (“We don’t fear those we despise… fill one’s mind with scorn…