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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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“Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”
~ Richard Schickel

“When Barry Jenkins introduced Moonlight, he said he hoped we see ourselves in the characters. We’re thrown into neighborhood combat with 10-year-old Chiron in Miami’s Liberty City where the empty lots, abandoned buildings, sidewalks — the shortcuts and escape routes — are his total known world. We intake vividly, like a 10-year-old, the cruel, the generous, the strangeness of others, the crack-addled neglect in a home he can’t escape. Jenkins’ characters’ lives move on, get stunted, are dulled to stupefaction, end tragically, end in separation. Moonlight is Chiron’s world. It’s the current lower-middle class, working class, disenfranchised- and-alienated-class world. Intimacy is Jenkins’ accomplishment. But, what we’re intimate with is another consciousness so totally and truthfully created, that we’re looking outward and inward simultaneously. That’s why Jenkins’ work is profound. Chiron is us and we are him, asking ourselves, ‘Who am I? Where do I fit?'”
~ Michael Mann On Moonlight