Thursday, June 30, 2016

Spies in a world shorn of honor

Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard enrich Our Kind of Traitor, an engaging adaptation of a John le Carre thriller.
Almost any John le Carre novel has the potential to yield an intelligent, big-screen thriller. Adapted from a 2010 le Carre novel, Our Kind of Traitor proves the point, deftly luring us into a world populated by Russian mobsters, British academics, and British intelligence agents, all of them operating against backdrops that extend from Marrakech to Paris.

Perfectly timed to compete with the bloated drivel of summer, Our Kind of Traitor reminded me of the kind of movie pleasures I'd lately been missing, namely characters who find themselves in situations they couldn't possibly have anticipated and which prove morally taxing.

Early on, we meet Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomi Harris), a couple vacationing in Marrakech in hopes of reviving a sagging marriage. Self-sufficient professionals, Perry and Gail are dining in a restaurant when Gail abruptly leaves to handle a business matter.

Left alone, Perry is approached by a convivial Russian (Stellan Skarsgard) who invites him to have a drink with his companions, a surly looking bunch. Perry reluctantly accepts, and soon finds himself accompanying Skarsgard's Dima to a party full of temptations, mostly in the form of drugs and women.

Because Dima belongs to the Russian mafia, these temptations come with obvious forebodings: Perry's crude, tattooed associates make no attempt to conceal their carnal appetites.

Full of robust charm and confidence, Dima assures Perry that he needn't be alarmed. He calls him "professor." He overpowers Perry's resistance with loudly expressed charm.

Of course, Dima has an ulterior motive. He wants Perry to transport a memory stick to London. As the man who launders Russian mob money, Dima says he'll name prominent Brits who are in cahoots with Russian crime czars. In return, he wants asylum for himself and his family.

The rest needn't be revealed here, but director Susanna White and screenwriter Hossein Amini treat le Carre's work kindly in a story that focuses on characters who are trying to get out of predicaments rather than penetrate secret inner sanctums.

Once Perry agrees to transport the memory stick, he's in over his head. A British operative (Damian Lewis) pushes Perry to become even more involved, arguing that he holds the key to saving Dima and his family.

Of course, betrayals and bureaucratic fumbles abound, as well as subterranean motivations in which money trumps anything resembling patriotism or honor.

In Dima, Our Kind of Traitor finds a terrific character. Entirely engaging, ebullient and tough, Dima makes no bones about having dirty hands. Yet, we understand Perry's fascination with him. Dina suggests something bigger and more life-affirming than his circumstances might have us believe, a deep understanding of the world's ways. He also knows how to use truth as weapon.

But it's not only plot and performance -- McGregor's best in a while -- that makes Our Kind of Traitor so intriguing; it's the movie's knowledge, acquired from le Carre, that the rot of barbarism can be found beneath the civilized veneer of societies that run on murderous greed. That attitude carries us past the movie's improbabilities and coincidences -- if not to greatness then at least to sustained interest.

In le Carre's fallen world, as made clear in the movie's gripping opening, there's always a chance that the purity of a snow-covered field will be stained with the blood of a beautiful innocent.

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