Our Kind of Traitor (Susanna White, UK, 2016)

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A not quite successful adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel that I nonetheless found intriguing and enjoyable. In a year with two such Le Carré adaptations, this one for film and The Night Manager for TV, both directed by women (Susanne Bier directed all six episodes of Manager for TV), the works are bound to raise interesting questions about the connections between film and TV  long-form fiction narratives, which is the best form to adapt this type of novel to, and the place of women directors at the intersection of these media.

Let’s be clear, The Night Manager is by far the most successful work. It was glamorous, tense, thrilling; it had superb and memorable performances (I was particularly impressed by Olivia Coleman and Hugh Laurie; whilst the beauty of Elizabeth Debicki and the callow elegance of Tom Hiddleston remain memorable). The failure of Our Kind of Traitor is mainly due to it not being exciting; there’s not enough tension in the scenes; there are not enough thrills; and the heart remains distanced and disengaged from what melodrama there is on offer.

I nonetheless enjoyed the film because there’s a very glamorous film star turn from Ewan McGregor, one he rarely chooses to give, opting instead for the plumping for greater depth often unwarranted by characters like the Perry Makepeace he plays here. There’s also a truly great performance from Stellan Skarsgård as a Russian Mafioso equally capable of love and murder; I also appreciated the inter-racial romance (McGregor’s wife in the film is played by the elegant Naomi Harris) and how it’s presented without fuss and as completely commonplace. Lastly, the director has found a fascinating way to film the moral ambiguities of a thriller; everything in the film appears only partial; we see through distorted images or through glass that dimly reflects what happens outside that which contains or carries our characters (reflected through cars, windows, etc); how we see is made equivalent to what we know. Bits and pieces; aspects; as the peaces of the puzzle are put together, so is our sight in relation to the events that are shown. One understands how the director is trying to condense and symbolise; to create images that not only convey plot but reverberate into other aspects of the story. I found it quite beautiful.

It’s not enough however: chase scenes and fights scenes are both lax;, unforgivable in an espionage thriller; and at the heart of the film is the embarrassment that is Damien Lewis’ performance. He’s trying for a stylised turn but is letting his glasses do most of the styling and in making this choice also loses the emotional effects a more understated and realistic performance might have conveyed of the lengths a father might go to avenge his son.

Not good but enjoyable and worth seeing.

****

This is now on Netflix. It stands up well to a second viewing, seeming even better than I at first thought. The visuals seem even more striking; the gender politics so much clearer (woman are depicted with a depth here they usually lack in other films of the genre) and even Damien Lewis seems better.

9th of March, 2017

José Arroyo

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