You’d think John le Carré books would be easier to adapt. Full of intrigue and elegant melancholy, they seem like ideal cineplex fare. But it takes a crackerjack team to translate the spy novel author’s carefully crafted cynicism onto a big screen without getting lost in his details. The best of the lot may be Fernando Meirelles’s sweeping 2005 take on The Constant Gardener or Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Gary Oldman as a retired agent whose fangs have only mildly been filed down by time. “Our Kind of Traitor,” British television director Susanna White’s interpretation of le Carré’s 2010 Cold War rekindling and the latest addition to the le Carré canon, is a slicker animal – different but not necessarily inferior.
The dreamy Ewan McGregor plays the dreamy (and unsubtly named) Perry Makepeace, a London poetics professor on holiday in Marrakesh with his dreamy barrister wife Gail (Naomie Harris), who has good cause to find him not so dreamy. We know this because the film begins like a romance novel – a tangle of sheets, skin, and perfectly tousled locks (his and hers; McGregor’s hair hasn’t been this long since the nineties) – as Perry makes love to his wife and a tear slides down her infallible features. It seems Perry has transgressed with a student since he felt unappreciated by his busy breadwinner wife, and this trip is his attempt to – ready for it? – make peace.
The pun of his surname has many applications. While Gail takes a work call, Perry meets a group of Russians including mafia bigwig Dima (a wobbly accented, long-locked Stellan Skarsgård; there is more hair in this film than you can possibly imagine). Next thing you know, the professor is swept away to a bona-fide Bacchanalia – high-end hookers astride pretty ponies, cocaine gleaming on silver trays, and champers, champers, champers. (There is an abundance of champagne in this film, perhaps as another nod to romance novels.) A few cocktails and tennis matches later, Perry agrees to smuggle a USB drive to British intelligence for Dima. Is it because he buys the man’s claim that the Russian mob plans to kill his sprawling, charming family? I found myself assuming he steps up prove he’s not weak in the only way a weak man knows how: by wading into waters in which he’ll surely sink.
Needless to say, the plan goes off with many a hitch. (I did mention it was a le Carré adaptation, yes?) Perry tries to turn the USB drive over at customs and be done with it but is thwarted because the Russian money Dima has been laundering all these years has landed in some very prestigious British pockets. Straight-edged, short-staffed MI6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis of “Homeland” in his glorious native accent) is sympathetic to Dima’s plight but can’t muster support from his corrupt higher-ups, so he goes renegade in his efforts to protect him, enlisting Gail and Perry, who agree to risk their lives to rescue Dima and his clan.
I kept wondering how Gail has time to play savior if she had such a busy job, and, indeed, “The Two Faces of January” writer-director Hossein Amini’s screenplay skims over salient details while wallowing in minutiae. A sidebar about Dima’s sullen teen daughter feels over-articulated, yet we never learn how Hector convinces a handful of colleagues to go off the reservation with him, nor do we grok why Gail is also willing to go to great lengths to save people she’s only met a few times. Is it patriotism? The world’s weirdest form of couple’s therapy?
Yet these gaping plot holes rarely offend. IT turns outs nebbishy Brits being seduced by charismatic, hedonistic Russians doesn’t require much explanation, especially when you’re being dazzled by the same eye candy and charismatic personalities as they are. Anthony Dod Mantle’s expertly streamlined photography goes a long way toward establishing the layers lacking from the script, and Skarsgård chews up the scenery with a gusto that’s just what the spin doctor ordered. If McGregor isn’t quite convincingly buttoned up – he never excels when reining it in; witness his inert performance in “August: Osage County” – that misplaced (unequivocally sexy) zeal helps us better accept his otherwise-unexplained white knighthood. Less wily than some le Carré adaptations, “Our Kind of Traitor” channels a heady subversion – not just of corrupt institutions but of our expectations of spy stories.
This was originally published on Signature.