The recent BBC adaptation of The Night Manager was a delicious reminder of writer John Le Carre’s ability to wring nerve-shredding tension from spy games orchestrated by self-serving members of the British Secret Service.
Screenwriter Hossein Amini’s adaptation of another Le Carre page turner, Our Kind Of Traitor, is perfectly timed to capitalise on the resurgent interest in the Dorset-born author and his expert dissection of MI6 practices.
Hinging on a chance encounter between a naive British everyman and a flashy East European powerbroker, Susanna White’s film flits across international borders as it asks us to believe that a plummy academic would risk his humdrum life for a total stranger by virtue of his unshakeable goodness.
“Why are you still here?” the Russian criminal asks his stuffy saviour as they prepare to face a team of sharp-shooting assassins.
“I don’t know,” dryly responds the lecturer.
Nor do we and that frustrating lack of clarity about the lead character’s motivation proves the film’s undoing as the cogs of a serpentine plot click neatly into place, setting up the inevitable final showdown that decides if virtue or vice emerges unscathed from the melee.
University lecturer Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) and barrister girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris) are on holiday in Marrakesh, hoping to salvage their relationship after his indiscretion.
At a bar, they encounter rowdy Russian businessman Dima Krasnov (Stellan Skarsgard), who unexpectedly takes Perry into his confidence and secretly gives the academic a flash drive to deliver to British intelligence with the instruction that it is “a present from the number one money launderer in Moscow”.
British agent Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis) and colleague Luke Weaver (Khalid Abdalla) take delivery of the flash drive at Heathrow, which contains evidence implicating MP Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam) in a money-laundering scam masterminded by sadistic Russian mobster The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin).
Hector’s direct superior Billy Matlock (Mark Gatiss) refuses to sanction an official operation, but Hector ploughs on regardless, since he harbours a private grudge against the politician.
Unfortunately, there is a caveat to smuggling Dima to the UK as an informant.
“He will only deal with us if you and Gail are there,” Hector explains to Perry.
Thus the lecturer and his sweetheart become globe-trotting pawns in a deadly game of espionage alongside Dima’s proud wife Tamara (Saskia Reeves) and their children.
Anchored by Skarsgard’s eye-catching portrayal of a family man with a twisted moral code, Our Kind Of Traitor simmers pleasantly, but never turns up the heat sufficiently on McGregor and Harris’ do gooders.
White choreographs some memorable interludes, including a hallucinogenic party where one naked lovely trots around an opulent house on horseback, but protracted chase sequences aren’t particularly suspenseful.
Amini’s script telegraphs its intentions, sustaining dramatic momentum, if not the vice-like tension we crave.