Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released in the UK on May 13, 2016 and in the US on July 1, 2016
Directed by Susanna White
Written by Hossein Amini, based on the novel by John le Carré
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Naomi Harris, Khalid Abdalla, Velibor Topic, Jeremy Northam, Alicia von Rittberg, Mark Gatiss, Mark Stanley, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Alec Utgoff, Lucy Holt, John le Carré
I’d read John le Carré’s spy thriller Our Kind of Traitor a few years ago and liked it; it was the first espionage novel of his that I’d ever read, and I thought at the time it would make for a good movie, if placed in the right hands. Then, just a few days ago, during a visit to my local library, I saw that it had been made into a movie, just last year in fact, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of its release. Was it a straight-to-video job, or had it come and gone from theaters in a matter of minutes? This didn’t bode well for me: when any book I’ve enjoyed is adapted for film, the question I always ask myself is: will it be as good as—or perhaps better than—the source material?
In this instance, the answer was no. Ewan McGregor plays Perry MacKendrick, a university professor from London on vacation with his wife in Morocco, who one night is befriended by a happy-go-lucky Russian, named Dima, while sitting alone in a restaurant. Soon Perry discovers that Dima is actually a happy-go-lucky money launderer for the Russian Mafia, who fears for his life and wants out. In exchange for safe asylum, he’ll hand over information to the British government linking the gangsters with British politicians. Perry agrees to help both Dima and MI6 with the situation, but of course things go sour when the mob becomes suspicious, and the plan begins to fall apart.
And yes, I’d have to say the film went sour and fell apart as well. The excitement, tension, foreign intrigue, and character interactions that made the novel such an interesting and gripping read were, for whatever reason, jettisoned by the filmmakers and replaced with lifeless storytelling, a miserably slow pace, and a frustrating lack of spark. Though the photography was first-rate (and to me was the film’s only saving grace), the same couldn’t be said for Susanna White’s direction, which too often jumped between sharp and sloppy, and the underplayed work of the actors, including that of our leads McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, and Naomi Harris, who all seemed disinterested and ready to go home.
Mostly, though, my problem was with the screenplay, which was just flat-out dull. I don’t recall the events of the book page for page, but it seemed to me the film story followed a different path than that of the novel, which was not only unfortunate but puzzling, because the novel was so much more captivating, and offered a structure and tone that to me should not have been tampered with. I also had zero tolerance for the acute carelessness of the characters, who had me shaking my head in disbelief far too often; considering the high stakes and dangers involved, there sure were a lot of poor decisions being bandied about, whether one was new to espionage or not.
Lackluster when it should’ve been exciting, drawn-out when it should’ve been fast-paced, and not enough tension or thrills to make it worthy of the ‘espionage’ label; perhaps I would’ve thought better of Our Kind of Traitor if I hadn’t read the book first, but even so, there was really nothing here to set it apart from the hundreds of better and more involving spy thrillers that are out there. In fact, I counted nine previous adaptations of le Carré’s books—from 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to 2014’s A Most Wanted Man—and I’m guessing any one of those would make for a smarter and more satisfying viewing choice than this one. (4/10)