An episode of Law and Order called “We Like Mike” featured Frank John Hughes as an ordinary joe who helps a stranger change a tire and then becomes the chief suspect when the man is murdered. He’s exonerated, but the D.A. presses him to give the testimony that can convict the real killer, and though he’s still smarting from the treatment he received from the cops, he agrees to do it because he knows he should. It’s been years since I’ve seen this small-scale portrait of a man who’s instinctively drawn to do the decent thing, but it came to mind during Our Kind of Traitor, Susanna White’s gripping movie, adapted by Hossein Amini from the John Le Carré novel. Amini, one of our most skillful literary dramatizers, wrote the screenplays for The Wings of the Dove (Henry James), Killshot (Elmore Leonard) and The Two Faces of January (Patricia Highsmith), which he also directed. (The Wings of the Dove is a model of how to shape an entirely interior book that seems to
resist dramatizing at every turn.)
In Our Kind of Traitor, Ewan McGregor plays Perry, an Oxford professor on holiday in Morocco with his wife Gail (Naomie Harris); it’s an attempt to help them recover from a crisis in their marriage – Perry’s infidelity with one of his graduate students. When a wealthy Russian with a commanding personality named Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) taps Perry for a tennis game and then invites the couple to a party on an expansive estate where the guests are encouraged to indulge themselves in various ways, Gail’s suspicions are aroused as she sees Perry being led into the mansion by a beautiful stranger. But the woman is taking him inside for a private conference with Dima, who identifies himself as an underling for the Russian Mafia whose life and the lives of his family are in danger from his new boss, the Prince. (Grigoriy Dobrygin, who plays the Prince with steely calm, was extraordinary as the illegal immigrant who becomes the focus of international intrigue in the last big-screen Le Carré adaptation, A Most Wanted Man.) Dima is willing to supply evidence of collusion between British VIPs and the Russian mob in return for sanctuary for himself and his family. He asks Perry to be his liaison, handing over a message to Heathrow security on his return to London. And Perry, who has seen Dima’s wife and children – as well as the two little girls who were the only survivors of the Prince’s attack on one of Dima’s colleagues, another too-well-informed holdover from the last regime – does it. (The movie opens, hauntingly, with the murder of the colleague, his wife and daughter, en route to another party at a sumptuous venue.)
Perry’s dalliance with his student is the detail, the proof of human frailty, we need to identify with the character: he’s imperfect, like us, but he’s also a deeply compassionate man whose conscience prompts him to step up. Hector (Damian Lewis), the intelligence officer to whom Perry’s information is relayed, asks him and Gail to help effect the rescue by making contact with Dima again, this time in Paris, in what is meant to look like a chance reunion leading to another tennis game. Their involvement escalates when things don’t go exactly as planned; circumstances turn Perry into a contemporary variant on the kind of hero Hitchcock loved to feature, the innocent bystander who has to use his wits to unravel a perilous situation he gets caught up in merely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Hitchcock the hero is Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, and the division between good and bad is delineated unmistakably, so his moral behavior is a given. But Le Carré works in the realm of realism, so we have to buy Perry’s courage and his loyalty to a man he barely knows, a man who has lived his life in the service of a criminal organization. (Skarsgård plays Dima as loud and vulgar, but also charismatic and full-hearted.) Perry operates on moral instinct, and McGregor, who has a talent for playing essentially good characters with blemishes, makes that instinct both visible and plausible. The critic Stanley Kauffman once famously called Kubrick’s Spartacus “a trap for snobs”; I think Our Kind of Traitor may be a trap for cynics, partly because we’re not used to characters in Le Carré who operate out of pure motives.
|Damian Lewis with Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor|
Lewis plays Hector as a resolutely private man, a control freak whose tamped-down passions bleed through his modus operandi. Amini is smart to include a scene in which Perry visits him at home, where he’s cooking an impeccable lunch and where the environment permits him to show a warmer side of himself than we’ve seen before. We also note that he lives alone, though we know he has a son; the movie doesn’t tell us what happened to his wife (which is also smart). Hector’s son figures importantly in his character. The obstacle to Hector’s making the arrangements for removing Dima and his family from danger is that at the top of Dima’s list of Brits who are in bed with the Russians is Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), a minister with the power to veto Hector’s requests and a long-time enemy who is responsible for sending his son to jail for selling drugs. (We see in the sole scene between these two men that he took pleasure in doing it.) Longrigg’s manipulations increase the odds against the success of Dima’s plan to save his family; they also add a personal layer to Hector’s actions. His motives, by contrast to Perry’s, are not entirely pure, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t also acting out of a moral imperative. When the government won’t sanction his rescue mission, his decision to go rogue suggests a leap of faith that, however informed it may be by his hatred of Longrigg, we’re meant to see as parallel to Perry’s and inspired by it.
Our Kind of Traitor doesn’t have the complexity of A Most Wanted Man, but it’s very tense and very satisfying, and the cast is flawless, including Harris as a woman who has to fall in love all over again with the husband who cheated on her and Mark Gatiss as Hector’s friend and associate. Like A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor came out unheralded in the midst of the summer blockbusters. It would be a shame if it fell by the wayside.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.