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Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Grigoriy Dobrygin

Written By: Hossein Amini, John le Carré (novel) Directed By: Susanna White

The Shot

Our Kind of Traitor is a decidedly different espionage flick that’s not going to ever be confused with the adventures of 007, but really, that’s the whole point.  If you’re in the mood for intrigue and a change of pace (and pacing), this one’s worth the look, though it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

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A little sharp, a little understated.

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“Single malt?”

Yes.  Yes, please.

“I can’t get involved.”

“I’m afraid you are involved.”

Thanks in no small part to the exploits of a certain agent of the British Secret Service, people tend to expect Hollywood espionage films to be rather sophisticated affairs where the atmospheres are glamorous and even the thugs are well-groomed gentlemen.  But, as we see all too often, the modern world is hardly a playground for gentlemen.  Based on the novel by John le Carré, Our Kind of Traitor is an English spy story that lives in a decidedly seedy world where ostentatious elegance gives way to understated regret and where the only good guy isn’t really a spy but instead deconstructs poetry for a living.  Badly.

As such, fans of more traditional espionage actioners such as those featuring Mr. Bond or Mr. Hunt may find Our Kind of Traitor more than a little off putting, and perhaps – dare I say it – rather dull.  After teasing the audience with a particularly brutal execution for its opening sequence, Our Kind of Traitor immediately switches gears in favor of a visual narrative wherein much of the violent action that is the centerpiece of a traditional spy movie happens off camera, and where many of the discussions that anchor most intellectual intrigue-based stories happen in silent pantomime.  The film’s natural hero is such a fish out of water that it never feels as though he truly belongs to this story at all, while the main villains only make occasional appearances and provide little in the way of “bad guy charisma” even as they ooze constant threat. 

It is, frankly, a mess. 

But it’s my kind of mess, because as much as I love the more traditional formula, I can’t help but peg this different narrative approach as precisely what makes Our Kind of Traitor so interesting .  Yes, the pace is slow.  Yes, the story bobs and weaves and does weird things that don’t always make sense.  Yes, the most likeable character in the movie is a foul-mouthed, obnoxious boor.  Yes, the film’s idea of an attention-getter is random full frontal overweight male nudity.  Yes, the movie ends at least one scene before the story does.  But if you go in with an open mind, the overall effect is fascinating to behold.

It’s fascinating, too, because however contrived the catalyst event of the plot may be (so much so that the characters themselves can’t help but remark about it), the overall story feels realistic.  The world of the film is diverse, and it doesn’t whitewash the warts of humanity in general.  Even the best people are flawed.  Righteous men and women are also petty and/or jealous.  People tune out conflict even when they’re caught up in the middle of it.  Shady characters haunt shady places.  Fat guys get naked, too.  Inelegance happens.  Though Our Kind of Traitor is told from third person perspective, between the direction and the screenplay, it is none the less obvious that the audience is being given a taste of the overwhelmed civilians’ perspective, and when considered from that viewpoint, the pacing  and the “few pieces missing” narrative suddenly make a lot more sense.

Beyond the novelty of the Susanna White’s directorial approach and Hossein Amini’s script, Our Kind of Traitor is also fascinating because Stellan Skarsgard is an absolute dynamo on the screen who takes a sleazy character and gives him the depth and charisma that said character certainly believes himself to have but which the words typed into the screenplay aren’t guaranteed to convey without serious professional help.  This performance would be worth some hardware if it happened in a different film; instead, Skarsgard must content himself with knowing that when presented with project that would live or die based on the strength of his work, he made sure it would live.

As for Ewan McGregor, he seems to have found a niche for himself playing “what the hell am I doing here / in over his head” characters, and as such is a natural choice for the role of the Professor: an everyguy (as opposed to an everyman; there is a difference) whom the audience believes can make it through the deep, dark waters without drowning precisely because of McGregor’s particular brand of je ne sais quoi.  It’s the ultimate in convenience casting, and again, like so many things in this movie, it just works.

So even though Our Kind of Traitor is no one’s idea of a James Bond spy thriller, it doesn’t have to be.  Nobody here is a Bond, but that’s the whole point.  Everyone’s cup of tea it isn’t, but for those with broader horizons, it is certainly worth sampling.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2016

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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