John le Carré writes espionage stories in which the action is cerebral and the suspense comes from a keen observation of each protagonist’s character. Thus, the stakes in OUR KIND OF TRAITOR involve much more than the list of names that will topple those in power. They involve the people caught up in the intrigue being able to look at themselves in the mirror without flinching.
Our civilians shortly to be caught up in this are Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris), and couple with problems trying to sort them out with a romantic vacation in Marrakech. It’s not working. Between their emotional difficulties, and Gail’s inability to leave her law practice behind in England, Perry finds himself at loose ends, and the new-found friend of Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a rowdy Russian last seen delivering somber news with somber eyes to a man about to experience tragedy. Unable to resist Dima’s high-pressure bonhomie, Perry finds himself at a sketchy, though posh, house party, where he indulges in controlled substances, and impulsively defends a young woman in distress without considering the mountainous build, and forbidding tattoos, of the man assaulting her. Dima’s bemusement is mixed with a respect, and he insists on having their families meet, and that Perry spend his last night in Marrakech at the party Dima is throwing for his daughter’s 18th birthday. Many things happen there, including the reason for Dima’s insistence on intruding into Perry’s life, which is to give him a thumb-drive to deliver to MI6 that will reveal a most of a suitably nefarious plot, and Gail’s suspicions about why Perry seems so familiar with one of the lissome beauties at the party. Both will prove emotionally explosive.
Crisp direction and subtle performances keep the tone of the film low-key, but with a looming sense of tension. Damian Lewis, in particular, as Hector, the classic le Carré MI6 gray man, has untold layers of motives and emotions seething beneath his carefully nondescript manner. Motives loom large here, as do personal connections, and the film is as much about navigating those as it is about outrunning the bad guys or outsmarting the putatively good ones. The coalescing of all concerned, despite suspicions, despite previous actions, becomes the central struggle as Perry and Dima find surprisingly solid common ground in an uncommon commitment to simple decency, and Hector’s personal demons become tangled up in his sense of justice as they fuel his single-minded pursuit of the smooth, supercilious government official (Jeremy Northam) betraying his country.
McGregor and Skarsgård are superb. The former infusing an eager, intelligent innocence to the imperturbable sense of honor that won’t let him walk away from this shady character who has put both him and Gail at risk. The latter a shaggy gregarious manipulator with palpable cunning and, as it turns out, the purest of motives and, sometimes, the softest of hearts. And this is why the story is so gripping. It’s how these two negotiate that unlikely teaming, making it somehow inevitable, that carries the action, influences all the relationships around them, and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
As with the best of the le Carré tales, the characters in OUR KIND OF TRAITOR are as complex as the plot. Guns blaze here, and the brutality is viscerally direct, but it’s the razor-sharp minds engaged in scathingly brilliant maneuvers to outfox an opponent that evoke awe. Even gasps of delight and admiration. Who misses the Cold War as a plot device when le Carré can bowl us over with the evil that is still out there?