As a thriller set in exotic locales and shot with a quick eye designed to keep you on the edge of your seat, Our Kind of Traitor, does not disappoint. I saw the film on Memorial Day in a full house amidst the film festival crowd at Seattle International Film Festival. That is to say, I was amidst folks who know movies, and I’m happy to report there was no shortage of gasps and leaning in, getting to the edge of the seat, throughout the theater. The film had many strong notes and some not so strong. Here’s my review! Some spoilers, but nothing that’ll kill your wanting to see it for yourself – the film is set for general release in the US on July 1.
Directed by Susanna White, Our Kind of Traitor employed just the right tricks of cinematography to build up tension and suspense. There was a nice sense of urgency in the camera work, a great fit for this genre of story-telling. Lots of shots of characters behind glass, windows, doorways, walking and talking nearly out of frame so as to urge you to lean closer to see what was going on. Lots of close-ups of tension on their faces. Even the brief bits of violence that are a part of all thrillers were shot either close-up or fleetingly, the camera never taking in any one character from head to foot, in full motion. So much of the action seemed peripheral, just off screen enough, to keep you guessing what would happen next.
The style of shooting is, no doubt, a boon in the context of a thriller, but it was a bit of a detriment to getting deep into any of the characters. Because of the paucity of full body shots, there wasn’t much opportunity for the characters to exercise their full physicality.
Stellan Skarsgård, as Russian money launderer Dima, on a mission to trade information for asylum, occupied the most space, physically and thematically, largely because of the mop of hair, his wildly expressive face, thick Russian accent and propensity to curse randomly. (He’s matched well by Saskia Reeves in the role of Dima’s wife, her face so strained, yet with passion coiling just below the skin)
Ewan McGregor, frankly, seemed to move, both physically and metaphorically as if he had his hands tied behind his back. Granted his character, professor of poetics Perry Makepeace, was a bit of a fish out of water. (When asked what did it mean to be a professor of poetics, Perry smilingly confesses “a certain lack of imagination” :)) An actor like McGregor needs to use his body and he just wasn’t allowed it here, not to the full extent we know he can.
As for the role played by Damian, most of MI6 agent Hector Meredith’s face was hidden behind really cool but really over-sized horn-rimmed glasses, so he was another one who could have used more space to play with body language. Damian’s eyes, even behind the specs, still conveyed emotion, of course, but since the camera so rarely panned full body, the only other tool of the trade left to him was his voice. A formidable tool, even in isolation, only had we heard more of it.
As a thriller, Our Kind of Traitor worked, but as a remark on political corruption and the grayness around money, what is clean, what is bloody, we could have used more words from everyone. Words that were right there to be had in Le Carre’s book, but somehow never made it to screen.
Now, I’m not much for wanting a film to teach me a lesson or even show me a general truth. I want to be able to see the lesson or theme unfold organically on screen and take from it what the direction and performance, sometimes wordlessly, gives me. Everyone knows that good storytelling is about showing not telling. And there is always a tradeoff in the writer’s hands between overtly describing something or having a character spout off his motivation, versus showing it to us and hoping we get it. I’m all for the idea that art should show instead of tell, but Our Kind of Traitor was a case where I missed the telling.
Granted thrillers rarely get personal. Even when the plot is personal, like, for example, in the Bourne series or something like La Femme Nikita or The Professional, all great taut thrillers, the story is still, by design, all about plot development and not about character development. But, the thing is, in the book, Our Kind of Traitor, the characters as written did have a lot more personality than was portrayed on screen. And the suspenseful of the plot would not have been hurt one bit if some of the deeper parts of those personalities had been tapped. There was reliance on images where words would have worked as well. A tear falling down Gail’s face (Naomi Harris) coupled with a quiet whimper early in the film spoke many words, but there were other cases where we just needed more words spoken and not just shown.
Hector in the book was much older, cantankerous, stodgy, set in his ways, and willing to subvert authority to do what needed to be done. Damian’s Hector is all of those things to a degree, but mostly you see him as idealistic, still determined to do right, but mostly defeated by bureaucracy and intransigent power structures above him.
Damian’s Hector is younger than Le Carre’s Hector, in spirit and deed. There’s one beautiful small scene where Damian is allowed to express something physically. Can’t find it in a clip to gif here, but, suffice it to say, it’s sort of a microcosm of what he can bring to the table wherever art is being made. Hector is on the phone, his face is turned away from the camera, all you see is his neck, and without words, the disappointment from what he’s hearing on the phone is registered by his neck bending down. Takes me longer to describe it than for him to do it, but there you have it.
In the book, Hector has one beautifully full speech when the plot comes to a head. That speech is a part of a conversation and there is a great bit of personalized description of the context behind the motivations fueling Hector’s words. In the film, some details about Hector’s life (son in jail) are mentioned only passingly, and some (his family business gone to hell), not at all. In the film, that great speech, the real insight into the central conflict in the story, the one point you’re supposed to walk away with, is distilled into one or two lines delivered in a sort of a vacuum on the edge of a conference table full of silent anonymous faces, averting their eyes in mild guilt and contrition. And, worse of all, the camera barely lands on Damian’s face when he’s delivering the lines.
It was a great speech, the bit that made it to film, direct even when those listening had their eyes averted, impassioned without being blustery. Hector is believable in his indignation without sounding overly bull-headed or naïve. But, oh, how much more of all of that, it would have been if Hector had gotten more of it to say. Okay, enough telling, let me just show you what that speech was in the book. Hector is in conversation with Luke, one of his few faithful lackeys at MI6.
And the dirty money sloshing about, the profits of pain, we’ve seen that to […]
He didn’t wait for the answer. ‘In the Congo, billions. In Afghanistan, billions. An eighth of the world’s fucking economy: black as your hat. We know about it.’
‘Yes. We do.’
‘Blood money. That’s all it is.’
‘Doesn’t matter where. It can be in a box under a warlord’s bed in Somalia or in a City of London bank next to the vintage port. It doesn’t change colour. It’s still blood money.’
‘I suppose it is.’
‘No glamour, no pretty excuses. The profits of extortion, drug dealing, murder, intimidation, mass rape, slavery. Blood money. Tell me if I’m overstating my case.’
‘I’m sure you’re not.’
‘Only four ways to stop it. One: you go for the chaps who are doing it. Capture ’em, kill ’em or bang ’em up. If you can. Two: you go for the product. Intercept it before it reaches the street or the marketplace. If you can. Three: collar the profits, put the bastards out of business.’
A worrying pause while Hector seemed to reflect on matters far above Luke’s pay grade. Was he thinking of the heroin dealers who had turned his son into a gaolbird [jailbird] and addict? Or the vulture capitalists who had tried to put his family firm out of business, and sixty-five of the best men and women in England on the rubbish heap?
‘Then there’s the fourth way,’ Hector was saying. ‘The really bad way. The best tried, easiest, the most convenient, the most common, and the least fuss. Bugger the people who’ve been starved, raped, tortured, died of addiction. To hell with the human cost. Money’s got no smell as long as there’s enough of it and it’s ours. Above all, think big. Catch the minnows, but leave the sharks in the water. A chap’s laundering a couple of million? He’s a bloody crook. Call in the regulators, put him in irons. But a few billion? Now you’re talking. Billions are a statistic.’
Closing his eyes while he lapsed into his own thoughts, Hector resembled for a moment his own death mask: or so it seemed to Luke.
Ah, let’s pause and imagine the death mask cast over Damian’s face. If anyone can cast a death mask over his own face, it’s Damian Lewis. Let’s imagine it fitting into this film in a way the film makers apparently didn’t imagine it would.
Yes, this one central “point” to Our Kind of Traitor, the theme of petty crime fueled by deep-seated corruption at the highest levels of government with everyone on every level turning a blind eye and choosing the easy fixes, this theme perhaps could not have been convincingly transmitted with mere words to screen without sounding pedantic and overblown. Plus, to the credit of the film makers , the message is delivered a lot more subtly when we get a shot of Perry and Gail leading Dima’s family up a hill in North London, with them all turning to look at the south shore of the Thames, to a skyline full of construction cranes. No words are spoken and it’s up to us to put two and two together to, first, get visual confirmation that Dima’s family made it, and, second, to see with our own eyes where the blood money in going in London. The scene is divorced from any other action in the plot, and presumably the family were heading towards Gail’s flat in Primrose Hill, but that’s neither here nor there. I can’t seem to find this scene in the book, so it may very well have been a visual shortcut to “showing” us the overarching theme Le Carre wanted to convey. It was a shot ripped from future headlines apparently:
In short, it’s a tough call. Hearing Damian Lewis deliver thunder, as we know he can, calling out the evil and giving a good public thrashing, versus seeing the seemingly benign business-as-usual outcome of evil winning the day. Seeing it shown to us worked, but hearing it told to us sure wouldn’t have hurt.