Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
The world seen through the eyes of a spook is a dark and lonely place, and so is the world of crime. This is something John le Carré knows all too well; before joining the rank of one of the most respected living authors, the Briton served MI6 during the height of the Cold War, and thus his work offers unequivocal insights into the heart and mind of spooks: through the stories of the people who are involved or implicated in a deadly complication by chance or design, he quietly, yet sternly, reminds us of the damning consequences of the ‘game’ from which we are unable to extricate ourselves. As late Philip Seymour Hoffman powerfully epitomised in the closing scene of A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014), in the world of espionage, every action has far-reaching, often unforeseeable, consequences, and a seemingly benign and commonplace problem such as workplace disharmony could destroy many lives and denies the very objective ‘everyone’ sacrificed so much to achieve. From the Cold War era masterpieces such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963, Victor Gollancz & Pan) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974, Hodder & Stoughton) to the contemporary classics such as The Constant Gardener (2001, Hodder & Stoughton) and A Most Wanted Man (2008, Hodder & Stoughton), his darkly fascinating work warns us in no uncertain terms: in the merciless world of greed and domination, every pursuit, however invaluable, comes with a tremendous human cost. Whilst many have become familar with the dangerous state of world through the master novelist, the film adaptation of one of his newest work, Our Kind of Traitor, genuinely surprises us. Despite the current status of human dignity experiencing a free fall into the abyss, the movie reveals a surprisingly empathetic attitude toward the main characters and their struggles against the meight of blood-money complex without allowing sentimental heroism and ridiculous bravados. Masterfully directed by Susanna White and written by the trusted hand, Hossein Amini who wrote the scripts of Drive and The Two Faces of January, which he also directed, Our Kind of Traitor enjoys a positive distinction: this is the first le Carré film which emphasises ethical elements of the story than the world of espionage itself, thereby being morally satisfying without being foolishly ‘vindicating’ as in ‘Action-Thriller films’ of a Hollywood variety.
Our Kind of Traitor tells a story of a young couple whose bond is tested to its limit by unwittingly getting involved in a joint scheme carried out by a Russian criminal syndicate and its British accomplices: with the help from a certain high-ranking member of the British government, the Russian mafia wishes to set up a bank whose sole reason d’être is to evade international economic sanctions and conduct a large scale money laundering at the heart of The City. It all begins innocently enough: during the holiday trip in Morocco to salvage their troubled marriage, Perry (Ewan McGregor), an academic, and Gale (Naomie Harris), a successful lawyer, meet an extremely wealthy Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). When Gale leaves Perry in a restaurant to take a business call, Dima insists on the sulky academic to join him for some drink. Perry’s initial hesitation is quickly overcome by Dima’s larger-than-life personality: the Russian is quite bombastic, yet there is this inexplicable human quality about him that proves irresistible. In the following day, Perry and Gale attend Dima’s daughter’s birthday celebration, and Gale and Natasha (Alicia von Rittberg), who has just turned eighteen, make an instant connection. In the meantime, Perry is confronted by Dima’s desperate plea: Perry is the only person who could help him save his family from the clutch of a Russian criminal syndicate. Dima has been a trusted hand for the organisation and controlled their international money laundering schemes, yet the change of guard at the top now poses an existential threat to him and his family. The ‘Prince’ (Grigoriy Dobrygin, who delivered an absorbing performance as Issa Karpov in A Most Wanted Man), who inherited the reign of a criminal brotherhood from his late father, has betrayed the 'code', which commands its memebers to resist state authority, and switched the allegiance to Kremlin. To assume the total control of money, Prince begins a systematic elimination of his late father’s confidants: Dima’s friend was recently murdered in cold blood along with his wife and his eldest daughter, and Dima knows that he and his family would be next. Dima entrusts Perry an USB drive containing the information of prominent British politicians, lawyers, bankers and officials who have been assisting Prince to set up a large-scale money laundering operation in London for hefty financial rewards, which range from five to twenty-million British Pounds. Following Dima’s instruction, Perry hands the flash-drive to MI6 and is questioned by an MI6 officer Luke (Khalid Abudalla) and a senior officer, Hector (Damian Lewis). A few days later, upon reviewing the drive, Hector makes a surprise visit to Perry during his lecture as Luke escorts Gale to an MI6 safe house. In an undisclosed location in London, Hector tells bewildered Perry and Gale that they need to go to Paris to help MI6 to strike a deal with Dima. Hector has set up a meeting with Dima in Paris to discuss the deal which involves his cooperation with MI6 to uncover the financial fraud and the British treason in return for Dima and his family's asylum to England, yet the Russian won’t meet them unless Perry and Gale are present. This is when Perry, a hapless university professor of poetics, realises that he is now responsible for the fate of Dima and his family.
On paper, the story presents nothing unusual as a le Carré film. The world represented here is just as sinister as in his classics from the Cold War period wherein the humanity came close to the total self-destruction on multiple occasions. Against the stark backdrop of international power-play, le Carré likes to make a point by introducing principled individuals who go a great length for the sake of restoring some semblance of moral decency. Despite the menace of existential threat, these individuals refuse to back down and demand human dignity for themselves and for those they love. Yet, as we have seen in A Most Wanted Man, such a struggle nearly always ends in a hallowing failure. This sobering view of the hidden world defines le Carré’s work and their film adaptations. Drawing from years of experience at MI6, the plots of his novels are always debilitatingly subtle and complex, and the author never shies away from offering a realistic picture of spooks and their creed: there is nothing glamorous about this business, and the differences are made by the accumulations of small advantages obtained by thorough and meticulous work of unsung agents who are not always able to see their tasks completed. Therefore le Carré movies are antithetical to Hollywood takes on the genre: spooks are not superheroes equipped with designer suits, futuristic gadgets and superhuman physical strength; like Smiley or Günter, they appear ‘breathtakingly ordinary’ and melt away into the background of a society wherein they silently toil and grind as they battle with persistent doubt over the effectiveness and the meaning of their assignments. And a happy ending is a rare bird: a conclusion, even a just one, is only the beginning of yet another intrigue wherein more lives would be destroyed. At this point the audience must face a crushing despair: a victory appears utterly pointless in view of the endless trail of global destruction. We realise that ultimately there could be no justification for the sacrifices made, and the lives lost. Plunging into the world of deadly secrets could thus result in a fatalistic Weltanschauung.
Our Kind of Traitor is quite remarkable in that, regardless the terrible context within which the narrative unfolds, it manages to be hopeful without becoming foolish. Whilst being famous for his ability to intelligently illustrate the world in degeneration through the eyes of shadowy figures, le Carré is never satisfied with simply telling us a cautionary tale. In fact, his story is also about ethics: the Briton is seriously invested in the characters' choices and their moral and political implications. His protagonists are deeply flawed and seriously damaged, yet they somehow manage to be just in critical moments of their lives. This is because the underlying motive for the Brit’s fiction is his ceaseless desire to see some justice despite the depth and scope of malaise plaguing our Geist. His story tells us: Whilst there is no justification for the lives destroyed and lost, there are genuine respect, although never publicly acknowledged, for the just actions taken by some upright individuals at critical junctures. The story tells us in no uncertain terms: the darkness would not be destroyed; it is only repelled on this occasion. Yet, like in the song, ‘Heroes’, we must recognise the only fact that matters in the end: it counts that justice could be done, even ‘for just one day’. To give a cinematic expression for such a nuanced attitude about ethics, that is, appreciating just actions as such regardless the overall scheme of things, we need a quality director and a cast to match the ambition of the project. Fortunately we are treated with the best possible solution in this regard: the main four characters, Dima, Perry, Gale and Hector, are perfectly cast. To begin with, Stellan Skarsgård is simply perfect as Dima: his natural reserve and sensitivity shine through in every cut, reinforcing our empathy toward this troubled character by aptly showing that he is not all what he appears: a ‘self-confessed criminal’, a high-ranking member of Vory, a criminal brotherhood known for its absolute opposition to the State. By murdering a KGB officer who made a vile habit of sexually and sadistically abusing his mother, Dima enters the world of organised crime at a tender age, eventually becomes the member of the criminal brotherhood who distinguishes itself by the strict observation of its unique code of conduct. Spending his entire life in the world of organised crime, Dima seeks to spare his family from its darkness to which he was condemned by circumstances. Hence this crisis is also the moment of redemption for Dima: he is ready to pay the price for his life as a criminal in exchange for the safety of his family. Being under siege by the Prince’s henchmen, he tries his luck with the timid Brit he encounters. Yet, it is when Dima’s deep smouldering rage against misogynist violence finds a kindred spirit in Perry, the Russian trusts everything to the clueless university professor: the Brit, who is benign to a fault, flips and fearlessly confronts misogynists, be they a Russian mafioso or the blue-eyed assassin (Paweł Szajda). The bond between the Russian and the Brit forms one of the key aspects of the story, and Ewan McGregor responds to Skarsgård’s performance with an equal measure of sensitivity. The Scott has been very successful by bringing childlike innocence and optimism to everything he does, yet this rare quality does not always sit well with the character he portrays. Fortunately, on this occasion the story allows him to deliver a far more nuanced performance, thereby utilising this actor’s unique quality quite effectively in regard to the character development. Perry is a deeply flawed character, a ‘lost soul’ who cannot find a meaning in his existence and the world around him, and McGregor delivers one of the most complete portrayal of a character in his long career: he appears dry, weary and aged, reflecting a persisting melancholia that plagues him whilst maintaining a childlike openness, an ember surviving in the ashes if you will, that distinguishes his presence on screen. This point is critical: just as Skarsgård convinces us of Dima’s human quality, McGregor makes us understood why this timid mess of a human being is capable of confronting evil when the circumstances prove most challenging; he is in a position to simply walk away from it, yet, despite nearly doing so, he follows his conscience to the bitter end because of his deep empathy to another. In short, one of the threads of this complex story is about how Perry responds to the call for his redemption; he is presented with a chance to define who he is. And, most importantly, he does rise to the occasion with complete disregard to himself. Without McGregor’s unique quality as an actor, Perry and his actions would not make sense at all.
Equally impressively, Gale (Naomie Harris) represents another thread of redemption. Whilst she was obviously wronged by Perry, she does have her fair share of shortcomings. Professionally successful and financially comfortable, Gale has dedicated herself to her profession so completely that she appears to have forgotten her own human need for meaning, that is, a necessary self-interrogation about some of the most essential questions: who she thinks she is and why she does what she does. Intellectually sharp and pragmatic to a fault, Gale has long forgotten her appreciation of human decency: as a lawyer, she would do everything in her power to defend her clients whether they are innocent or not. Her life is completely professionalised in that she has turned herself into a sort of supremely capable android; she has compartmentalised and outlined every aspect of life and executes every task with staggering accuracy and efficiency. She appears to have lost touch with herself in its entirety until Perry’s illicit affair with one of his students came to a fore. It is a brilliant directorial choice by Susanna White: we meet Gale as someone who is at her most vulnerable state. She is deeply shaken by Perry’s betrayal of her trust in that she has to halt their lovemaking, leaving the bed in tears. Yet, soon, she retains her hardened exterior: sharp, intelligent and composed, she could sense problems in advance and handle all, whether it is a Russian mafioso or a MI6 agent. Her world is so fortified to the point where she appears absolutely insufferable on more than one occasion: she would go so far as to argue with Hector, a senior MI6 agent, that they have no obligation whatsoever to Dima and his family even if it means their imminent and violent death. Remarkably, she continues to hold her position after she made a connection to Natasha and saw the pictures showing how the family of the twins she befriended was butchered. Her trepidation for getting involved with a high-stakes international espionage against a ruthless Russian criminal syndicate and equally deadly British conspirators is absolutely understandable, and her reaction to Perry’s naïvité is equally valid: he may be intellectually gifted, yet his timidity and gullybility makes him an easy pray. Her argument is rational and logically sound at a glance as she always presents her case in court. Yet she is confronted by a grave moral decision as Hector forces her to acknowledge the fact that the inaction is not an option, for turning blind eyes in the face of evil is to become its accomplice, however small and indirect one’s role may be. She is also forced to question her way of smartly navigating the world by Perry’s persistent adherence to his conscience: some things are simply and absolutely wrong in that one has no choice but to stand up against them. Gale’s nagging doubt over her involvement finally ends when Perry passionately confronts the blue-eyed assassin over his violent abuse of a woman: the seemingly benign academic suddenly goes after a member of professional criminals at their den without a moment of hesitation. It is Perry’s such quality that brings everyone together in this unlikely band of flawed individuals in a quest to defend human decency. It is Perry's confrontation with a rapist that made Dima believe in his character unconditionally. It is Perry’s determination to help his friend that pushes Hector further than he would professionally go to protect Dima’s family. Yet, it is Harris’ sensitive rendition of Gale that really brings forth the complexity of the story; she reminds us that this is also a story of a marriage as well as a personal redemption for every major character. The way Harris represents the subtle shifts in Gale's outlook of her husband, herself and the world at large reminds us: the story is not just about the struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ played out at the global scale wherein every individual represents mere means; it is also about our individual struggle for restoring moral decency and possible redemption from our individual flaws. We are most likely flawed individuals, yet, by acting just at the critical moments, we could meet our possible redemptions.
This redemptive aspect of the story applies to the senior MI6 agent, Hector, in the most heightened sense. For Hector, the redemption in this particular context means many things and encompasses every aspect of his existence. Given that the chief architect of British collusion with a Russian criminal syndicate turned out to be his nemesis, Aubrey Longrigg (Jeremy Northam), a former MI6 chief turned an MP, his operation to expose British traitors becomes intensely personal; Hector sees Longrigg as someone who betrayed the agency and the country for which they both serve. The feud between them appears to be a long-lasting one, and Longrigg eventually scores a victory by making police arrest Hector’s son for a minor drug offence, thereby diminishing the thorny subordinate. Therefore, bringing full justice to the corrupt British subjects offers a chance of redemption for Hector as a committed agent of MI6 as well as a father: Dima can prove that his nemesis is also the criminal mastermind of the British collusion with a Russian criminal syndicate with direct connection with Kremlin. If he manages to expose the criminal offences committed by Longrigg and his high-ranking associates, not only it brings a full-justice to the case but also a justification for the sacrifices made by Hector and his agents, and perhaps more importantly, the suffering of his son (It appears that Hector is estranged from his family; hence one should think that he was a distant figure to his son). Yet this is only a half the story; Hector’s redemption also comes as he involves himself with the fate of Dima and his family far deeper than he is normally willing. At the beginning, Hector is only interested in securing the deal with Dima and exposes the British traitors for the collusion with a Russian money laundering scheme on the British soil. Yet, seeing Perry and Gale’s commitment to save the lives of Dima and his family, and facing the protest from Luke about the promise to save Dima's family without sure means, Hector discards his tunnel vision and decides to go beyond what is merely professionally permitted. Whilst he is always ready to violate rules and protocols for the sake of justice and the service, after confronting with Gale, Luke and Perry, he commits himself to what he thinks is right: saving Dima’s family from the certain violent death by the hand of ruthless criminals and their British accomplices. And all of this subtle transformation for Hector culminates in one explosive confrontation with the committee at Treasury Office headed by the Secretary of Cabinet: he powerfully denounces their willingness to abandon moral duties and accept Britain's diminished status as to the point where they are willing to accommodate the wishes of whoever promises financial rewards. He accuses what has become as the ‘norms’ of the New World Order: the blatant acceptance of blood money on the high street. No one questions the origin of money so long as it comes in billions. Whether sources are heroins from Afghanistan, arms deals in Sudan or female trafficking, so long as it comes in quantity, we accept money without asking questions. In this intense outburst, Hector describes the world as he sees it: the eighth of the world economy is swelling with blood money. We have decided that it is acceptable to live with this knowledge so long as no one speaks the truth. Whilst Hector and his agents cannot change this damning state of affairs by doing right by Dima, that is not the point. Hector challenges the high-ranking officials of the British government by asking: Here is a rare opportunity to do it right; Are you going to grab it with both hands and take a stand for the sake of human decency for a change? Damian Lewis’s portrayal of Hector is measured and delicately authentic, yet at this high point of the drama, Lewis absolutely owns this character: Lewis/Hector’s delivery is nothing short of electrifying.
Whilst we are fortunate to have such a talented cast, we must not forget that all of this is made possible by Susanna White’s outstanding directorial vision. Our Kind of Traitor stands out amongst the extensive list of quality films based on le Carré novels, each of which offers distinct flavours. Whilst The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965) is as dark and existential as it gets, The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meilleres, 2005) adopts a far more sympathetic attitude toward idealism represented by Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz), an Amnesty International activist. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Thomas Alfredson, 2011) is a classic le Carré with bewilderingly intricate plot and sobering insights anchored by Alfredson’s keen understanding of cold isolation that defines the modern human condition. Whilst A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014) masterfully navigates the complexity of the post-Cold War intelligence that exposes the ineffectiveness of War on Terror and the resulting human const, the changing landscape brought little difference in tone: le Carré’s world is stark. It is a desolate place wherein every good intention is betrayed, every innocence is brutally murdered, and every survivor finds no solace in extending his/their/her existence. Yet White has produced a minor miracle: she managed to film a poignantly hopeful movie based on Amini’s script, which is more faithful to le Carré’s moral indignation on the state of affairs than the plot by the Brit, and she makes it work. Although the casting plays a large part of this project’s success, there must be no doubt: it is White’s keen interest in the contemporary human condition and our desperate, and nearly always misguided, quest for meaning made this movie a singular achievement. White’s focus on character development transforms this purportedly ‘Hitchcockean thriller’ into a story of redemption. To our delight, the redemption is sought at many levels in this beautifully understated film. It is a story of redemption for a lifelong member of Russian criminal syndicate by standing up for his principle and doing everything he can to save his family. It is a story of a jaded academic who lost sight of meaning of his existence. It is a story of a professional who lost in touch with her humanity. It is a story of a couple who lost sight of one another. It is a story of a headstrong intelligence officer who desperately seeks to restore some sense of justice. It is a story of an estranged father who seeks to avenge his son’s predicament. It is also a story of a partial redemption of a nation who has lost its way and has become a hub for international ‘blood money’ laundering schemes. The way in which White weaves these stories of redemption into a coherent whole is quite marvellous. Each thread compliments another flawlessly, and the way it culminates in the explosive confrontation of Hector with the government officials is deeply satisfying. It is clear that White’s keen sense of drama steers clear of the common pitfall, that is, the complete lack of flow and coherence. A typical movie involving international espionage and conspiracies frantically rushes through scenic landmarks for no good reason, and the mosaic of fragmented points of views represented by respective characters is clumsily glued together by a woefully artificial climax. Whilst Amini’s adaptation is impressive, it would have been impossible to achieve such a powerful dramatic coherence and affective impact without White’s vision. In short, White manages to create an emotionally engaging movie based on the heady and complex story involving the dark underbelly of international criminal schemes. It is perhaps the only espionage movie that speaks to the heart of the audience. White achieves this by stressing the temporal nature of redemption: the darkness is only repelled, not vanquished. This realisation, subtly represented by the last scene, greatly amplifies our appreciation for the sacrifices made by the main protagonists. The film is powerfully affirming in that any resemblance of human decency is only occasionally, and temporarily, restored, yet there are some who sacrifices their own safety to seek it. Given the stark odds, such individuals actions should be understood as rebellions in a proper sense of the word: Camus argues that when one faces injustice that defies human comprehension, one has no choice but to rebel. Camus’ notion of rebellion thus function as a categorical imperative in that one must simply act without consideration of one’s stake or possible consequences. And Our Kind of Traitor is a movie about how these individuals come to a shared commitment to stand against the Absurd. White’s keen psychological understanding aided by superb acting illuminates the dilemma each character faces, and we are deeply affected as much by their frailty as their strength.
There is another quality that separates this movie from other espionage films: poetic beauty. White infuses every cut with a understated, yet breathtaking, aesthetics which adds subtle yet profound meaning to it. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is keen yet atmospheric, expressing the mood of each scene rather than explaining it. White makes use of Mantle's skill for the benefit of her remarkably controlled and focused direction; every character, even small roles, are sharply sculpted without relying on outward elements such as costumes and speech. Through Mantle’s lens, White is able to present the existential quality of each character with clarity and completeness. And all of these elements are composed with a poetics of melancholy. This is precisely where White’s genius lies: in Our Kind of Traitor she gives a definitive expression of the sickness unto death, the crippling angst and melancholia, the underplayed Leitmotiv of our Zeitgeist. It is the same elegy that plagues the spirit of cinematic greats such as Bergman and Tarkovsky, that is, the stark recognition of our Fall. Yet, fitting to the story, White choses to face this damning predicament with a certain grace. In her hand, even a gruesome murder assumes a classical beauty. This is paramount in the character development of the blue-eyed assassin played by Paweł Szajda: he is at once menacing and elegant, like a sleek predator who stalks its pray in the wild. This characterisation works because neither White nor Szajda overplays it. As a result his character assumes a mythical quality and becomes an angel of death rather than a weapon of choice belonging to a ruthless mafioso. This juxtaposition of fairytale and the criminality of contemporary Realpolitik heightens the poignancy of the story. Yet, unlike The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Our Kind of Traitor refuses to become bitter; it rather forces us to find courage and strength to seek certain redemption, if only for just one day, by rising for an occasion at a critical juncture of our finite lives. It is precisely in this quality that Susanna White’s second feature film becomes one of the most under-appreciated films of our time. The importance of this film reaches beyond the appreciation of cinematic art. Whilst there is absolutely no guarantee that one can follow the footsteps of these brave souls, one must take heart from what we can learn from this tale: the sober understanding of the cruel reality and the resolve to resist it in any way. I hope by all means that none of us should find ourselves in such a precarious predicament, heeding the warning of this story would do us good, for, at the present moment, the future prospect of humanity appears quite dire.