3 August 2016

Susanna White’s ‘Our Kind of Traitor’

I almost didn’t get round to seeing Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor. I find John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels unconvincing, as are their TV and film adaptations, for example, Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man and the recent BBC miniseries directed by Susanne Bier, The Night Manager. Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor was published in 2010 and the 2016 film adaptation is credited to him and Hossein Amini (adapter and director of The Two Faces of January).

A London university lecturer, Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor), and his partner Gail (Naomie Harris) are on holiday in Marrakech and get taken up by a shady Russian oligarch, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Dima has fallen out with his fellow Mafiosi and needs a courier to convey intelligence to the SIS (MI6) whose help he wants. Hector (Damian Lewis), the SIS officer who takes on Makepeace’s case, has his own reasons for wanting Dima’s information which may incriminate individuals at the top of the British establishment including a former C (Head of SIS). Acting covertly within SIS, Hector organises an extraction of Dima and his family from Geneva, using Perry and Gail. Things don’t go exactly to plan, particularly for Dima, but at the end Perry unknowingly presents Hector with the MacGuffin which will provide what he needs after all.

For her film, White clearly didn’t have Bier’s budget but I doubt if more money would have made much difference to the creaky nature of the plot. That the main action of Our Kind of Traitor began and ended with scenes reminiscent of Homeland Season 5 (an ambush in a forest and an aircraft exploding after take-off) didn’t help when Lewis had been a stalwart of Seasons 1 to 3. As for the SIS (un)safe house in the French Alps – wouldn’t there have been any precautions taken about the subjects’ mobile phones, and wouldn’t phone coverage be highly unlikely there anyway? As for the bomb … . There are character implausibilities as well: Gail is supposed to be a big earner, yet is practising criminal law which is notoriously badly paid. Despite Hector’s line management having told him to desist, he somehow he manages to lay on resources for an operation in Switzerland of all places.

Le Carré’s work is usually regarded as being on a higher moral plane than, say, Len Deighton’s. Jake Kerridge recently listed in the Daily Telegraph “the twenty greatest spy novels of all time”, one being le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold:
When the young David Cornwell, an intelligence officer working for MI6, published his pseudonymous third novel, it was hailed as the first work of fiction to present the business of espionage as it really was. Le Carré himself would say that this was precisely what the book didn't do. As he once told me: "My service passed it, on the grounds it was not reflective of the truth, and gave away no secrets." It is better regarded as a great feat of imagination. Although le Carré has written many fine novels in the ensuing half-century, he has never quite recaptured anything as thrillingly transgressive as the cynicism of his anti-hero Leamas, who describes the rest of the Secret Service as "people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives".
So taking le Carré too literally is inadvisable, particularly in the case of Our Kind of Traitor, a thinnish film reworking of themes gone over before in the Cold War and after.

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