J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Le Carre’s Our Kind of Traitor

It turns out Putin even ruined the Russian Mob. They used to be reasonable gangsters a money launderer like Dima Vladimirovich Krasnov could do business with. Unfortunately, the newly installed boss is far more vicious than any of the old school Thieves By Law. Knowing his days are numbered, Krasnov reaches out to the least imposing Brit he can find in Susanna White’s adaptation of the John le Carré novel Our Kind of Traitor (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Gail Perkins is rather bent out of sorts when her husband Perry Makepeace allows the free-spending Dima to whisk him away for a night of partying, but the Russian can be persuasive. He is desperate, in fact. The money launderer is scheduled to sign over his accounts to the entitled gangster heir, aptly dubbed Prince, at which time, what happened to his colleague in the prologue will mostly likely befall Dima and his family. Somehow Krasnov convinces the skittish Makepeace to carry a list of names to British intelligence, much to the appalled surprise of his wife.

Dima’s intel might just be too good. One of his names is Aubrey Longrigg, the up-and-coming cabinet minister, with whom counter-intelligence specialist Hector Meredith holds a deeply personal grudge. Krasnov promises the corresponding account numbers in exchange for his family’s safety. Not one to be deterred by skeptical bureaucrats, Meredith goes off the books, keeping his close associates and Makepeace, the designated go-between, in the dark. However, when the Longrigg’s political allies try to put the kibosh on the operation, Makepeace and Perkins double-down with Meredith out of loyalty to Dima’s family.

On the spectrum of le Carré adaptations, Traitor is one of the better efforts without George Smiley. As Meredith, Damian Lewis is no Sir Alec Guinness or Gary Oldman, but he is still more than the equal of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was indeed the best thing about A Most Wanted Man.

Yet, it is Stellan Skarsgård who really propels the film as the flamboyant Krasnov. Frankly, his wardrobe might be the film’s greatest special effect. Mark Gatiss and Khalid Abdalla add further heft and flair portraying Meredith’s cloak-and-dagger colleagues. Technically, Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris are the leads, but their low energy bickering is the least interesting aspect of the film. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives it all the austere sheen of a Norman Foster building, but Marcelo Zarvos score is disappointingly classy, in a non-descript sort of way.

Unlike many le Carré narratives, screenwriter Hossein Amini’s adaptation does not bogged down in a lot of details. This is the rare le Carré that you watch for the characters rather than the twists—and Skarsgård’s Dima is most definitely a character. It also allows Meredith to take a stand against moral equivalency while squarely planting the villain’s mustache on Putinist Russia. We’ll take that in a le Carré film any day. Recommended with enthusiasm, Our Kind of Traitor opens this Friday (7/1) in New York at several theaters, including the AMC Empire, and in Brooklyn at BAM.

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