Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

2016 #191
Susanna White | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English, Russian & French | 15 / R

Our Kind of Traitor

Based on a John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor sees a couple of holidaying Brits, Perry and Gail MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), befriending a Russian chap called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it turns out has links to the Mafia and wants our hapless heroes to deliver an information-filled USB stick to British intelligence. As MI6 (primarily represented by Damian Lewis) seek to act on the information, the MacKendricks get drawn into the espionage game thanks to their relationship with Dima.

Some of Traitor’s detractors have a problem with it right from the off, finding the premise to be inherently ridiculous. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s quite a good plan on Dima’s part: to use an unsuspected casual acquaintance to smuggle important documents to the authorities. The way the MacKendricks continue to be involved does wind up stretching credibility, but that’s narrative structure for you — it’d be a real trick to construct a satisfying relay of perspective characters.

If anyone could pull that off it’s probably Le Carré, but this is not his most complicated plot — there are even less twists or double-crosses than you’re probably expecting — but as a tense thriller it satisfies often enough. However, Le Carré as author, plus screenwriter Hossein Amini and director Susanna White, seem to be more interested in the story’s real-world resonances. They’re using a thriller plot to bring up the kind of probably-genuine corruption we get in government today. On the one hand it feels a little obvious, especially to those of certain political leanings, but on the other it’s worth highlighting. An impassioned speech by Damian Lewis to some of his superiors sums it up, probably rather too neatly for some discerning critics.

British intelligence

Lewis is always good value, both in scenes like that and in his tentative partnership with McGregor. Although the MacKendricks are our point-of-view characters, the innocent normal people we should relate to, McGregor’s Perry is ultimately a little flat and Harris is underused. The real star is Skarsgård as the gregarious and foul-mouthed Russian banker, who is by turns unsettlingly dangerous and engagingly likeable. Or perhaps it’s the beautiful cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle — the varied international locations are particularly effective at adding scale to a story that’s really about the personal interactions of four or five people.

Our Kind of Traitor is not the very best Le Carré adaptation, especially given the increasing number we’re being treated to these days, but it’s still a reasonably engrossing thriller with something to say about contemporary geopolitics.

4 out of 5

The Two Faces of January (2014)

2016 #15
Hossein Amini | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English, Greek & Turkish | 12 / PG-13

The writer of Drive (and co-writer of Snow White and the Huntsman and 47 Ronin, but maybe he’d prefer we didn’t mention those) moves into the director’s chair with this Patricia Highsmith adaptation. Best know for her Ripley (as in Talented Mr.) tales, this is instead the story of a young American man, Rydal (Oscar Isaac), who, while working as a tour guide in Greece, falls in with middle-aged American couple Chester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette (Kirsten Dunst). Apparently on holiday, they look like an easy mark for Rydal’s somewhat-con-ish moneymaking practices, but events soon transpire to reveal the pair’s secrets, and Rydal’s greed draws him deeper into their affairs.

Amini has picked some quality material for his directorial debut. The storyline is pretty straightforward, but it’s driven by some interesting characters with complex motivations. You’re never entirely sure what’s driving Rydal and Chester, even if it may appear obvious; and sometimes it can be as much of a twist that a character didn’t have a better plan as it is when their implausibly-intricate machinations are unveiled. It helps that the film has a pair of quality actors in these roles, who effortlessly bring believability to even the slightly-far-fetched elements of the narrative. This is only the second thing I’ve seen where Isaac has made an impression (the other being The Force Awakens; I’d forgotten he was in Robin Hood and Sucker Punch), but I can see why everyone’s calling him one to watch.

If Dunst doesn’t leave as much of a mark as the two chaps, it’s only because Colette is a subtler-still character. Some people reckon The Two Faces of January has a thin story and no development of its characters, but I can’t help but feel it was too subtle for such critics. On the surface it might just seem like Colette is the dim-blonde wife, going along with her husband whatever happens and flirting with their sexy tour guide, but there’s clearly more going on under the surface. How much does she really know about Chester’s actions? Is she an innocent bystander, or is she involved? Is it harmless flirting with Rydal, or are Chester’s drunken suspicions on the money?

By choosing to set the film in the novel’s original 1960s timeframe, Amini adds instant style and class to the whole picture. Didn’t everything look classier back then? I mean, Chester wears linen suits and Panama hats, not T-shirts, shorts, and a baseball cap. It just wouldn’t be the same set today. Even the locations look straight out of the ’60s, even though they’re hundreds or thousands of years old and the film was shot this decade. Marcel Zyskind’s attractive cinematography is surely to thank for that. Again, it’s an element I’ve heard some criticise as boring or plain, which (much like the above views on plot and character) I just don’t understand. It’s not showy or show-off-y, but that’s part of what works. It lets the natural beauty of the locations speak for themselves, with classical compositions and rich lighting.

The era of the setting also helps emphasise the film’s Hitchcockian overtones, which given Highsmith’s other most-famous work is Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitch, of course) is perhaps an obvious point of comparison, but by no means an inappropriate or negative one. As the narrative twists and turns, tightening the tension ever more, you think the Master of Suspense would’ve been quite pleased if this had been one of his pictures.

Filming this particular Highsmith novel was a long-held ambition for Amini (he first tried to acquire the rights after his big-screen writing debut, Jude, back in 1996). Such much-awaited dreams can sometimes lead to poor results, thanks to a rose-tinted perspective or close-minded obsession, but on other occasions the lengthy preparation pays off. The Two Faces of January is most certainly a case of the latter, a ceaselessly classy, subtly complex thriller that’s very rewarding for those open to its numerous charms.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Two Faces of January is on Film4 tomorrow, Sunday 31st, at 9pm.