Our Kind of Traitor is the first thriller adapted from a John le Carre novel to be directed by a woman — not that you'd notice from the sang froid with which British filmmaker Susanna White serves up the gruesome carnage that opens the movie.
A Russian family, having sold its soul to a soft-spoken local mafioso (Grigoriy Dobrinin), is methodically massacred on its way to safety by a hit man with clear blue eyes and a thousand-yard stare. We'll run into this assassin later, doing what he does best as we're swept around glittering capitals of the global economy, pausing to goggle at the depraved doings of brassy new elites in gold-plated nightclubs.
That's where the post-millennial thriller goes for fun these days. Moral compasses are not invited, though a lost soul like college professor Perry (Ewan McGregor) may rise to the desperate occasion if tested. Marking time in a Marrakech dive while on a vacation that's meant to revive his ailing marriage to Gail (Naomie Harris, latterly Skyfall's Moneypenny), Perry is scooped up by Dima (Stellan Skarsgard, enjoying the f-word to its fullest), a burly party animal and money launderer to the mob. Dima's connection to the slain family has placed him in peril, and, after softening Perry up with a visit to an orgy, he persuades the reluctant prof to slip some classified information to British intelligence in return for safe passage for Dima and his family.
"I need some of your f------ British fair play," roars Dima. Forgive his fantasies: This is all pre-Brexit, and clearly he hasn't read the le Carre oeuvre, where even English fair play takes a pounding when MI6 gets into the mix with its own iffy agendas. Perry dithers, Dima yells, and soon the refugees find themselves herded from one scenic or scummy European hot spot to the next, not knowing whom to trust or fear. It's a whole new multi-culti world of good and evil, in which — admirably — nothing much is made of the sly casting of Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla as a British intelligence agent.
The movie observes its crimes and misdemeanors through warped glass or mirrors set at wonky angles, as if to underscore the moral murk that hovers over pursuers and pursued alike. The ambience of contaminated elegance suggests underlying depth, yet screenwriter Hossein Amini, with input from le Carre himself, is working with pretty thin material. Moral ambiguity has always been one of le Carre's great subjects, but for my money the writer has never been as comfortable working the post-Soviet, post-Berlin Wall world as he was in his superb Cold War novels. Which may be one reason why the best le Carre film adaptation since 2000 remains Tomas Alfredson's 2011 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which took us back to le Carre's brilliant spy, George Smiley. There's a Smiley of sorts in Our Kind of Traitor too, an MI6 agent with Old Etonian diction and a trimmer waistline. Played with understated flair by Damian Lewis, Hector Meredith has his own scores to settle, and his own code of honor. But as the keeper of the film's existential doubt he's a feeble ghost of the Smiley whose task, as he saw it, was to deploy the unpalatable against the Soviet unspeakable.
Here the villain is the toxic alliance of political corruption with the business underground, and though Our Kind of Traitor has a deft turn of the screw at the end, for all its blather about honor and courage the movie doesn't really go anywhere with its inquiry into the new evil. That may be because Perry is such a wan construct, dwarfed in every way by his new friend the money launderer. "Why did you choose me?" the plaintive professor asks. "There was no one else in the restaurant," booms Dima, and roars with laughter as he heads out to do what a man's gotta do.