MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Film: Our Kind of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor (Two and a Half Stars)
U.K.: Susanna White, 2016

Our Kind Of Traitor should be our kind of spy-suspense movie — a gourmet treat based on a John le Carré novel. But sadly, it almost isn’t. Though certainly a good film — or good enough — it’s a disappointment, despite a pedigree that seems impeccable: a classy adaptation from another of the author’s descents into the often deadly twilight world of spies and counterspies, traitors,, politicians, killers, and double and triple-dealers. There’s also a good director (British TV’s Susanna White), classy technicians and an excellent international cast headed by Ewan McGregor and the great sad-eyed Swede, Stellan Skarsgård — a Scandinavian thespian who can portray disgust and resignation better than almost any other living actor, and here has plenty to be disgusted about.

Skarsgård plays Dima, a money-launderer for the Russian Mafia, who is trying to defect with his family to The West. Since this is a le Carre story though, danger and duplicity lie everywhere. The seemingly genial Dima runs into heavy weather mostly because he has proof, on a USB drive, of crooked dealings with the Mafia by some elite British politicians and businessmen. Le Carre is, as always, a master of offbeat characterization and the rest of the memorable cast around Dima includes McGregor as Perry Makepeace, a British professor of poetry on holiday with his wife in Marrakesh, Damian Lewis as Hector, a savvy M16 agent trying to facilitate the switch, Grigory Dobrynion as the brutal Mafia boss The Price, Jeremy Northam as a possible second traitor, and Naomie Harris as Perry’s beautiful but troubled wife Gail.

Perry and Gail are in Marrakesh, trying to patch up their marriage when they meet Dima, who, with that terrific ragged Skarsgård smile, seduces Perry into attending a hedonistic Russian party, then into a vigorous tennis game. Soon Perry is hopelessly entangled with the fate of the strange, pushy man who has become his friend, along with Dima’s endangered family, and the politicos, agents and international criminals swirling around them.

The Makepeaces are an old-fashioned thriller couple. In the ‘30s, before Bondmaster Ian Fleming set his stylized, vicious spy stories among the professionals, the great spy thrillers of writers like Graham Greene and Eric Ambler (or for that matter Alfred Hitchcock) usually used protagonists who were amateurs and who somehow stumbled into the spy games of the professionals. That’s what happens here: Perry, despite the chilly wy McGregor plays him, is the amateur whose emotions and amateurishness may trip him up. Dima is the professional who knows the odds are against him, and, in Skarsgård’s hands, he becomes the pounding heart of this movie.

Susanna White and Hossein Animi, who, respectively, directed and wrote Our Kind of Traitor, are both specialists in high literary adaptations. (If Ambler was still around, they might be adapting him, and they may well get around to Greene some day.) She’s made British TV films based on three great novels: Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Ford Madox Ford’s “Parade’s End,” and a feature film based on suspense master Patricia Highsmith’s “The Two Faces of January.” Animi, besides scripting Nicholas Winding Refn’s icy suspense-action movie “Drive,” has written film adaptations of Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove” and Thomas Hardy’s “Jude (the Obscure).“

Obviously, they both have superb literary taste, at least in their choice of projects. But Traitor isn’t the kind of success that seems within reach, that might have been. Some of the actors (like the otherwise admirable Lewis) seem younger than they should be. The hooks don’t grip us, and the ending doesn’t wipe you out the way it should. But you can’t have everything, as Perry Makepeace learns. Our Kind of Traitor is at least the kind of intelligent adult and engagingly literary film that we just don’t see enough in our theat34s. And, in Stellan Skarsgård, it has one of those actors who can, all by himself, make our kind of movie.

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Wilmington

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas