Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

  • Time: 107 min
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Director: Susanna White
  • Cast: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Naomie Harris, Damian Lewis


When Peter and his girlfriend, Gail, cross paths with the charismatic Dima on their Moroccan holiday, the forceful Russian is quick to challenge Peter to a friendly game of tennis. But this innocuous contest is not all it seems – Dima is a long-time servant of the Russian mafia, whose new boss, ‘The Prince’, wants him and his family dead. His only hope is to ask the unsuspecting Peter to broker him sanctuary with the British intelligence services, in return for exposing a vein of corruption that runs right to the heart of the City of London. Soon they find themselves on a tortuous journey through Paris to a safe house in the Swiss Alps and, with the might of the Russian mafia closing in, begin to realise this particular match has the highest stakes of all…


  • Though perhaps not as complex an exploration of the moral morass in which John le Carré typically plunges his characters, Our Kind of Traitor is nonetheless an engrossing espionage thriller that steals the breath, churns the stomach and races the heart.

    Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is a tweedy university professor who claims to lack the imagination to do anything other than teach poetry. He’s holidaying in Marrakesh with wife Gail (Naomie Harris). It’s quickly revealed that there’s trouble in paradise. She’s still smarting from his recent infidelity with one of his students; he bristles when she abandons him to take a work call during a dinner in a restaurant that is far above his pay grade.

    Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) is in that same restaurant. He’s hard to miss. A bellowing bear of a man that immediately pulls everyone into his orbit, he cajoles the mild-mannered professor into attending a party where Perry loses himself in a haze of booze, cocaine and semi-serious flirtations. His rescue of a young woman from the clutches of a heavily tattooed Russian puts him in Dima’s good graces and the two men further bond over a game of tennis the following morning, where Dima introduces Perry and Gail to his wife Tamara (Saskia Reeves) and their coterie of children.

    At a party for his daughter’s 18th birthday, Dima reveals to Perry that he has information that would be extremely useful to British intelligence, namely a who’s who of British politicians who are in the very deep pockets of a Russian crime syndicate led by “The Prince” (Grigoriy Dobrygin), the ruthless mobster for whom Dima launders money. If Perry and Gail can help negotiate his escape from under the extremely watchful eyes of the Prince and his men and, most importantly, ensure the safety of his family, then he’ll provide unassailable evidence of the British politicians’ dirty dealings. Easier said than done, especially since MI-6 agent Hector (Damian Lewis) moves forward with the operation without official authorisation, a gambit which threatens the lives of everyone involved.

    Like the exemplary BBC mini-series adaptation of le Carré’s The Night Manager, Our Kind of Traitor’s tale of an ordinary man caught in a most dangerous situation blooms from an almost preposterous seed. In the former, ex-soldier and hotel manager Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is caught in the world of international arms smuggling in the hopes of finding the killer of a woman he barely knew. In the latter, Perry risks his and Gail’s lives to help a man in whose presence they’ve been a mere few days. Why? Even Perry can’t provide the answer. There’s something about the flamboyant Russian that endears him to the couple. “Maybe we’re better at looking after other people than ourselves,” Gail wonders. Perhaps for a man who spends most of his days in university halls, the thrill excites. Perhaps it’s the spark Perry and Gail need to bring them closer.

    As with The Night Manager, Our Kind of Traitor feels more Bondian and less cynical than le Carré’s previous works, which may mark it as lightweight for purists. Yet this is still an excellent effort though some of its plotting may be predictable and sometimes silly (a phone call made whilst at a hideaway house shall naturally ensure the killers come knocking on that door). Most of this is due to Anthony Dod Mantle’s stylish cinematography, Hossein Amini’s smartly structured screenplay and Susanna White’s confident direction. White’s choices are particularly commendable – this is a film where suspense is generated from the relatively quotidian, a drive that leads to a retro-futuristic housing project, a tennis match in a cavernous health club, an extraction from the reflective Einstein Museum in Bern (perhaps a nod to Orson Welles’ famous hall of mirrors finale in The Lady From Shanghai). Threats and betrayals may be whispered, but impact like depth charges. The film’s most striking image – an explosion seen in the distance, its sound like a murmur – is emblematic of this approach.

    All the actors are in fine fettle. McGregor is compelling, Harris is all angles and slink, Lewis (outfitted in a trench and glasses that more than recall Michael Caine’s iconic costuming as British spy Harry Palmer) overdoes the menace at first but his steely smarm becomes more effective as the film progresses. The standout is Skarsgård, whose portrayal here reminds audiences what an intimidating physical presence he can be. His Dima may be a melodramatic character but Skarsgard conveys the fierce commitment to family that underpins his motivations. Everyone’s a kind of traitor in this film, but certain allegiances are sacrosanct.

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  • I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to the faithfulness of this adaption. I watched the movie with absolutely zero preconceptions.

    Although this is ultimately a cloak and dagger thriller, it is really driven by the main characters, a married couple whose relationship has been badly damaged. Their cold, semi-estranged dynamic adds to the tension of the unfolding mystery surrounding them, and somehow you find yourself (Well, I found myself) wanting them to overcome whatever has injured their marriage just as much as you want them to live through the political intrigues in which they have become embroiled.

    Skarskard’s character, Dima, and his family, are another focal point of the story, and once again you really want them to pull through this awful situation. They aren’t simply a plot device to give the antagonists something to be heroic about.

    It’s not often that I really care about characters in a spy movie, but I was seriously invested in these people after just a few scenes. Our Kind of Traitor may not be as exciting as the Bond franchise, but I wanted Ewan McGregor’s awkward professor to succeed at thwarting these criminals far more than I ever cared about Bond’s shallow endeavors. It was also an interesting dynamic to follow a married couple mending their relationship in the midst of danger, rather that watching some steel- eyed killer sleep with numerous women without any real connection.

    Anyway, Bond comparisons aside, this spy film just felt authentic and personal in a way that many political thrillers do not, and it made all the difference to me.

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