Our Kind of Traitor: Style Over Substance

Our Kind of Traitor © 2016 STUDIOCANAL. Our Kind of Traitor © 2016 STUDIOCANAL.

Our Kind of Traitor is adapted from another one of John Le Carré’s spy novels, but it doesn’t present itself like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or A Most Wanted Man. The opening scene features a chiseled male ballet dancer suspended in a pirouette as operatic music floods in. It’s an absorbing, romantic image that sums up the experience of the film as a whole: beautiful to look at, but light on substance.

The plot revolves around an affluent couple, played by Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris, who get caught up in a Russian mob guy’s (Stellan Skarsgård) desperate plan to betray his allies before they have a chance to murder his family. Toss in an MI6 operative (Damian Lewis) and it could be a story taut with suspense and twists and turns.

Hossein Amini’s script is more emotional than suspenseful, and the film loses some bite in the final act. The best scenes are between McGregor and Skarsgård, and they could’ve been expanded to explore how a Russian mobster could betray his own country by working with British intelligence. McGregor and Harris make a gorgeous couple to look at, but something about their chemistry doesn’t quite work for a backstory of infidelity or the idea that a strained marriage would somehow make people vulnerable enough to get involved with a mobster.

Our Kind of Traitor © 2016 STUDIOCANAL.

Our Kind of Traitor © 2016 STUDIOCANAL.

The slow pacing only adds to the feeling of something missing and most of the other actors and locales blur together, hinting at more going on, but never fully delivering. Putting the couple at the centre of the action sets up a great premise that ordinary people can easily be corrupted by the powers that be, and yet become heroic when their real values are tested. But since the audience knows who the traitor is from the beginning, the lack of surprises makes the film really predictable.

Instead of being structured like a Jason Bourne film, with cutting edge editing and explosions, Our Kind of Traitor relies more on generic fist fighting and gun play, but the brutality never comes to a climax where both sides are locked in a struggle to match what’s at stake. You could say that director Susannah White is avoiding clichés of the spy genre in choosing to focus on pretty visuals and soft music borrowed from mini-series TV, but with so many spy dramas to choose from these days, it’s hard to see why this film should stand out from the pack.

Our Kind of Traitor is now playing in theatres.