A new Fan Fun series in 2021 is the Movie of The Month. And we kick off the series today with Our Kind of Traitor, a movie adapted for the big screen from a John le Carre book. This review is our tribute to the great author who passed away in December 2020. RIP.
Adaptations of le Carré books on big and small screen, as far as my experience goes, are my kind of movies. They are not typical action/fantasy movies with lots of stunts and special effects. They give you intricate story lines, clever conversations, fishy agendas and gray areas instead. If you have seen The Constant Gardener, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Night Manager you know what I am talking about. And if you have not seen any le Carré earlier, Our Kind of Traitor is a good place to start!
Damian is spot on as he contrasts the world of le Carré with that of Ian Fleming (the world of the most famous MI6 agent!) in an interview with Sunday Post:
“Fleming’s world of espionage is about fantasy and wish fulfillment, where as le Carré is interested in drawing stories from real time and culture.”
And THAT IS exactly why I prefer the latter to the former.
I always think of screen adaptation as a form of “translation” from written language to visual/spoken language. A screenwriter needs to recreate the work and bring in his own interpretation while keeping the essence of the story. It is a challenge. And I applaud screenwriter Hossein Amini for doing a seamless job in adapting OKOT for the big screen. He streamlines a convoluted story with a number of moving parts and makes it quite accessible to the viewer. The deviations from the book are cleverly done and keeping some of the best lines from the book — even though some are delivered at different times and places than in the book — helps keep the spirit of the story and of the characters. I can confidently say OKOT the movie is as good as OKOT the book which NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani describes as “part vintage John le Carré and part Alfred Hitchcock” as well as the author’s most thrilling thriller in a long time.
OKOT sets the tone in its opening sequence where we witness the lavish life and the horrible death of a Russian mafia guy with his wife and daughter.
Then we go to Marrakech and meet Perry and Gail, a couple struggling to overcome a serious bump in their relationship on a romantic vacation. We see them at a fancy restaurant where Gail, a successful lawyer, needs to leave because of a phone call from work.
A big, loud and garrulous Russian by the name of Dima invites Perry first to taste some Château Pétrus and then to an extravagant Russian party. We find out Perry is teaching poetry at University of London. When he hesitates to go, Dima makes an offer: “Professor” will go to the party should Dima be able to remember his credit card number which he has seen once. Guess what? Dima wins!
“Professor” goes to the party and finds out who Dima was before he finds out who Dima is: Dima grew up with a mom who slept with KGB officers so her family could eat. Some men hurt her. Like the one, who, Dima found slapping his mom when he came home from school one day. Young Dima killed him.
After bonding over conversation, a round of tennis and yet another extravagant Russian party for Dima’s daughter’s 18th birthday, Dima shares with Perry who he is.
Dima washes money and makes people rich. However, when his boss dies, his son “The Prince” takes over and makes a deal with Kremlin. The new boss is now bringing The Arena Bank of Cyprus to London and transferring all accounts Dima and others used to run to the bank.
Dima is now the man who knows too much and a threat to Kremlin. He knows what happened to his best friend Misha (the murder we see in the opening scene) will happen to him once he transfers the accounts. The clock is ticking for him. Dima asks Perry to give a memory stick to MI6 from “number one money launderer.” He wants asylum in the UK for his family in exchange for “The Prince” and the names of British officials tied to him.
Perry brings the memory stick with him to the UK. Hector Meredith from MI6 greets him at the airport with his own agenda and “medium-soft questions.” Hector is intrigued by the contents of the memory stick: Finding out his former boss and new MP Aubrey Longrigg is helping “The Prince” with opening the bank in London whets his appetite.
Hector is an old school MI6 agent with a moral code — he cites Kolakowski who has very strict views on good and evil as a favorite — ready to fight against this corrupt system where the boundaries are blurred when government, big money and crime syndicates are concerned. But, of course, war against the Russian mafia is a war against Longrigg. War against Longrigg is a war against the government, and in turn against the system Hector himself is a part of. Winning this war is a long shot for him. Still, he’s such an idealistic character defined as some kind of “Savanorola” in the book: “…fanatical about reforming the service knowing that he will lose the battle even if he wins it.”
WHY? Hector is suitably enigmatic and makes us pay attention! We extract bits and pieces about him as he lets us into his world.
Hector is lonely. Both professionally and personally. These two are not necessarily separate and they together push him to get involved. We observe his loneliness turn into desperation when his hands are tied by his own institution. As much as he is a maverick, Hector does not have much discretion over making major decisions. Longrigg, even though he is out of MI6, still HAS.
Hector delivers some forceful speech at a meeting with his higher-ups. That is his last push in his one-man fight against the system that is hesitant to investigate a bank because it will bring billions of dollars into City of London:
“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 cannot help wonder if Hector believes his words will get him what he wants. As much as they are powerful, words are words. And money is money. And power is power.
Stellan Skarsgard as larger-than-life Dima and Damian Lewis as Hector SHINE in the movie. They both bring a fabulous human touch to their characters and the movie comes into its own when either or both are on screen. And the two men have some fascinating parallels: They are both old school in what they do. Dima sees the mafia working with Kremlin as treason and Hector sees the government working with big money as treason. They both have personal stakes in this. And neither of them knows whom they can trust.
And then there is Perry, a go-between between Dima and Hector, who seems to trust Dima more than Hector. I don’t know if it is the script or Ewan McGregor who chooses to tone down the character but Perry in the movie is quite different than Perry in the book. Perry is an academic. His response is “a certain lack of imagination” when asked about why he is in academia. He has a long term relationship. His life is a routine. And he is clearly bored with it. This little spy story that he gets dragged into fascinates him in the book. As much as he is reluctant to have Gail involved, Perry himself is dying to be in the middle of it. And as much as he bonds with Dima and his family, the character Perry completely trusts in the book is Hector. For Perry, Hector cannot make a mistake. I have not been able to see THAT Perry on screen. He starts just right as a man with no enthusiasm and no energy but then does not change gears until the end. He comes across as lethargic.
So I would say it is Perry that deviates the most from his character in the book. However, when asked about which character in the movie deviates the most from that in the book at Time Out London Spy Weekend, director Susanna White says it’s Hector. Hector is a gray-haired, late 50s MI6 agent in the book and Damian obviously does not look the part. White shares with us Damian offered to wear a wig but they thought it was not necessary since it is all about the character, not about his physical appearance. And even though she does not share the details, I have an educated guess about why they cast Damian as Hector: You feel Hector’s loneliness throughout the movie and his ambiguity enriches the story making him part of the puzzle. You long to figure out his true motives. And, Damian Lewis, being the KING of delivering ambiguity and loneliness together, makes perfect Hector!
When asked about the movie and his character by Cara Buckley at Times Talks, Damian argues that this story of a load of dirty Russian money being used to set up a new Russian bank in London may be a tale of London, but may also be a story of Manhattan. “Multinational money stripping out the soul and heart of big cities.” As for Hector, Damian is intrigued that he is motivated initially for personal reasons and then getting softened and caught up in the emotion of the story.
Buckley finds Hector’s accent “very tipped” and Damian shares a story: He has lunch with two spies at a Special Forces Club in London as part of his prep for the role: one is a public school product and the other one is a private school product. But they both sound SO POSH. It seems, he says, there is an institutionalized accent there.
At Spy Weekend, Susanna White shares with us Damian was carrying the book all the time on the set picking and choosing bits from the book that he thought unlocked the character and asking if he could do this bit or that bit in the movie. I had the wonderful opportunity to ask Damian about what it was that unlocked Hector for him after his Times Talks in New York. You can see his answer starting at 2:36 below…
…and I am transcribing it here as well:
“Yeah, I found him intriguing. I always have the source material with me if there is source material. I always take it around with me and I keep referring back to it all through the day. Hector… I think Hector is John le Carre’s voice. I think there is often a character in his books who is a maverick, iconoclastic character. I think he speaks the truth to authority, I think he doesn’t really like institutions, and I think that’s who Hector is within this story. So I was interested in playing for that reason. And interested a little bit like I was just saying in the talk: the dilemma between the personal need for vengeance, the governmental need to get to the bottom of this Russian mafia ring and then this third reason which he is dragged into reluctantly, which is to help these kids, which is a fare of the heart, which is complicated.”
Damian is right. Not because I believe everything he says is right, but because his observation is completely in line with what le Carré’s son Stephen Cornwell shares with us at Spy Weekend: His father radicalized with age and now believes this new world of big money and politics going hand in hand is the new cold war.
See the movie and let us know what you think! And pay attention to the museum scene, in particular the old man collecting visitors’ tickets. He is an important character: Well, he is Mr le Carré himself 😀 ENJOY!