Let’s grant that “Our Kind of Traitor” is a bit clinical as movie and TV adaptations of John LeCarre stories go. But it may have set some sort of recent record for topicality by opening here this weekend.
It’s a British movie that deals with matters of foreign corruption and influence that strongly pertain to Britain’s mind-bashing Brexit vote. But that’s not all. The movie’s major and best performance by far is by 65-year-old Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, whose tall, preternaturally ripped son Alexander is taking over thousands of screens worldwide as we speak as the newest of moviedom’s Tarzans. (See Page XX.)
If you were to try to guess where the always-thorny LeCarre stood on the whole Brexit calamity by the way this movie ends, you’d almost certainly be wrong. Before the vote, LeCarre was one of a huge majority of British writers, artists and performers to sign a petition predicting that a post-Brexit Britain would be reduced to being “an outsider shouting from the wings” on the world stage.
The movie, then, is a highly acidic but involving view of other nations’ corruption and their toehold in modern Britain, but it’s far from propaganda for an apocalyptic bug-out from the international world.
Ewan McGregor plays the classic sort of hero the world knows so well from Graham Greene and Eric Ambler novels and Alfred Hitchcock movies – an ordinary, highly literate fellow in the right place at the wrong time and, therefore, a major chess piece in a bit of brutal international intrigue.
In this case, McGregor plays a professor of poetics at London University. He contributes literary essays to the London Review of Books and, when bored, seems to have a regrettable history of straying with young female students. He and his lawyer wife (Naomie Harris) are in Marrakesh vacationing and trying to keep their marriage together. While there, they find themselves involved with a big, loud, ribald and raucous Russian who just happens to be the chief money launderer for the Russian mob.
It’s the “professor” alone who first catches the mobster’s attention. He charms and inveigles his newfound British friend into going to a wild Marrakesh party with him while the professor’s wife is off at a conference. It is there that he finds out that the prof is the kind of guy who will stop a rape in progress. That’s enough of a portrait of his soul for the mob kingpin.
He confesses who he is and gives the professor a flash drive to be delivered to MI6 when the prof gets back home.
But there’s more. There’s no way this is going to amount to just an errant spasm of do-gooding by a British academic pressed into service by an exotic Russian gangster on an exotic vacation.
What happens to the prof is that he is progressively charmed by the mobster. So is his wife and so are we in the audience. He’s a typical LeCarre character – a flamboyant, energetically profane miscreant who could charm the mitre from a pope.
We don’t see Skarsgard nearly enough in our movies, but he has a great time lending bluff, ribald authority to this part while at the same time conveying deep concern over his family’s fate.
Life has made this mobster want to give info over to MI6. But this being a LeCarre story, the midlevel Brit intelligence operative who knows how valuable his information truly is (Damian Lewis wearing Michael Caine glasses) can’t help but be subject to the corruption and stupidity of a superior who has never passed up a chance to do him dirty (an unusual part for habitually virtuous Jeremy Northam).
The movie is all Skarsgard as a sort of Russian Falstaff and McGregor as an earnest, clever young man whose goodness and sense of honor have lain dormant in quiet academe but now have the ability to come forward and make him a hero.
I wish the thriller parts of this film had a few more hairpin turns. But the plot travels from Morocco to Paris to the French Alps to London, and it’s all involving and well-photographed enough.
The friendship of these two opposites among men could have been exploited a bit more zestfully, but Skarsgard’s portrait of a hopelessly engaging and decent “traitor” to his own country is worth getting to know.
Three stars (Out of four)
Title: “Our Kind of Traitor”
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris
Director: Susanna White
Running time: 107 minutes
Rating: R for violence, language, some sex and frontal nudity.
The Lowdown: A British couple on vacation befriends a money launderer for the Russian mob.