The immersion is instant: an ominous string orchestra provides a bass-heavy soundtrack as two tuxedoed men exchange documents and a pearl-handled revolver in slow-motion snowfall. A Russian diplomat, his wife and daughter are all assassinated, their blood staining the virgin snow. This all happens before the opening titles of Our Kind of Traitor have been completed. It is a return to the spy-versus-spy world of author John le Carre (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener).
Based on his 2010 bestseller, Our Kind of Traitor reminds us that the Cold War was not as thawed as reported.
Here, we have an unwitting meeting (or is it?) between a British poetry professor (or is he?) and a rich, slovenly, foul-mouthed Russian oligarch (he most definitely is). Dmitri Krasnov, deliciously embodied by Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, Thor), boasts that he's the "No. 1 money launderer in the Russian mafia." When Krasnov bumps into Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) in a Marrakech saloon, he's hoping Makepeace is either a British spy or knows one.
Too bad for Krasnov, Makepeace is a lowly English poetry professor on a Moroccan holiday with wife Gail, nicely played by Naomie Harris (the new Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise). For some unexplained reason, Krasnov has developed a conscience and wants to pass information about his criminal activities to British intelligence in exchange for sanctuary for himself and his family.
Enter: UK superspy Hector Meredith, portrayed by the red-hot actor (quite literally, considering his ginger features), Damian Lewis (Homeland, Billions).
In a classic le Carre scene, Makepeace tries to wiggle out of a shadowy mousetrap:
"I can't get involved," Makepeace pleads.
"I'm afraid you're already involved," Meredith responds.
It's a nearly stereotypical scene that we've witnessed a hundred times before in countless other films. Yet, Our Kind of Traitor has a fresh and—at times—ferocious take on the genre. That's in large part due to the capable work of director Susanna White, who has previously crafted some superior TV episodes of Masters of Sex, Boardwalk Empire and Parade's End.
This is only White's second full-length feature film, yet she checks all the boxes of the spy thriller genre: horn-rimmed glasses, cool-blue lighting and exotic locales. In one expertly executed scene, a particularly daring rescue includes the unlikely elements of the Swiss Alps, Albert Einstein and a jet that never leaves the ground.
All in, Our Kind of Traitor is a tightly packed potboiler that plays it cool one moment, then sizzles the next. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to see it, tell someone else to see it, then self-destruct.