Many aspects of “Our Kind of Traitor” mark it, indelibly, as John le Carre material: moody, ruminative, one foot in the movies, one foot in the real world.
Early on there’s an abrupt love scene between Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris that, by narrative design, ends before it gets going. Harris plays Gail, a London barrister married to McGregor’s character, Perry, a literature and poetry instructor. The marriage is on rocky ground; we hear of the husband’s affair with a student. Perry and Gail are vacationing in Marrakech (it was Antigua in le Carre’s 2010 novel), and there they meet Dima, a gregarious but lethal Russian money-launderer for the Russian mafia, played by Stellan Skarsgard, dining out on a role originally meant for Mads Mikkelsen. (For a time Ralph Fiennes was scheduled to play the McGregor role.)
A bearlike mobster who loves his family, Dima is trying to save his skin and get his wife and children to England. After a night of Moroccan debauchery, Perry agrees to sneak a flash drive through customs for Dima, and to deliver incriminating information (a list of British politicians and financiers backing a bank deal funneling dirty Russian billions into the U.K.) to the hands of British intelligence. Damian Lewis plays the MI6 point man, smiling even when being threatened. It’s one of the strengths of le Carre’s story, adapted for the screen by Hossein Amini, that Perry never knows quite how much to trust his own handler in this risky bit of international brinkmanship.
The plot proceeds from Morocco to London to Paris and then, ultimately, to a bloody standoff in the French Alps. Typical of le Carre, there’s a refreshing de-emphasis on casually glorifying gun violence in “Our Kind of Traitor.” (In other words, le Carre sticks to his guns by not sticking with them.) Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle saturates his digital imagery with great washes of yellow and green and brown; the look of director Susanna White’s proficient, moderately engaging film is slick and creamy, more so than the usual le Carre affair.
I don’t the think the “look” is quite right for the story. Nor is the dreamy, wandering score by Marcelo Zarvos, which adds the blandest sort of ambient “tension music” to whatever’s going on. McGregor struggles to make Perry credible in his credulousness; Harris, far better, doesn’t have enough to do; Skarsgard is fun. But are we at a point now, in America especially, with our psychotic gun problem and murder rate, that we don’t have the patience for a thriller that doesn’t wipe out a new set of disposable characters in every other scene?