Movie Review: Our Kind of Traitor

Two weeks ago we had what I cynically called “Dunkirk Week” with two films about the famous wartime evacuation opening here in Hong Kong on the same day. Coincidence? Hardly. Hong Kong film distributors subscribe to the tenet that if you can’t beat ’em, you join ’em. I suspect that the distributor of THEIR FINEST sat on that film so they could ride upon the publicity coattails that DUNKIRK was sure to receive. It’s probably a good strategy but it doesn’t do much for our city’s supposed reputation of being world class. Nevertheless, it seems history has repeated itself rather quickly as we now have two films involving the MI6 being released in consecutive weeks. Last week it was ATOMIC BLONDE; this week it’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR. Again, this is not a coincidence as the latter film was released overseas more than a year ago and has already played on many airlines in the region.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, this is the big screen adaptation of John le Carré’s 2010 novel of the same name. The film stars Ewan McGregor (the STAR WARS prequel franchise) as Perry, a British poetics professor who finds himself entangled in an international spy game after he meets a boisterous Russian mobster while on vacation in Marrakech with his barrister wife, Gail (Naomie Harris, SPECTRE; COLLATERAL BEAUTY; MOONLIGHT). It turns out that the Russian, Dima, (Stellan Skarsgard, GOOD WILL HUNTING), has a penchant for numbers and he’s memorized the Swiss bank account numbers belonging to a number of high-profile British MPs who are involved in an elaborate money laundering scheme involving a Cypriot bank that is about to start operating in London. Because Dima knows too much, he’s a threat to a Russian mafia colleague named “the Prince” who is heading up this bank. The Prince has already sent his henchmen out to eliminate one of Dima’s friends and his family. Dima knows that he and his family are next so he convinces Perry to take a USB stick filled with incriminating information back to London with him to turn over to the MI6.

Little does Perry realise when he agrees to do Dima a solid that he’d be landing both himself and Gail right in the middle of a lion’s den. To make matters more complicated, Hector (Damian Lewis, TV’s HOMELAND), the MI6 officer who meets with Perry, has his own agenda. His ex-boss is both someone who previously crossed Hector and who is involved with the Prince. Hector would like nothing more than to see his ex-boss disgraced. Dima, meanwhile, wants protection for him and his family in London in exchange for those bank account numbers. Perry wants to do the right thing and Gail just wants to go back to her quiet life at home. No one who is involved in this web of murder, corruption and intrigue is going to make it easy on the others.

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is a complete throwaway of a film. You watch it, you’re mildly entertained and then you promptly forget about it. It’s a shame because it could have been much better than it is. There are a few problems with it and I’ll deal with the easy one first: Why is MI6 involved in the first place? Even if the case involves one of their own, this falls under the auspices of Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). I haven’t read the book so maybe le Carré was able to explain this quirk to his readers but I was scratching my head throughout the film wondering why no one from SOCA had marched into MI6 headquarters and taken the case away from Hector. At the very least, there’s a huge conflict of interest here.

And that leads to the second problem: A lot has happened in the world of global finance in the past few years. Since the publishing of the Panama Papers in 2015 and perhaps even before, banks have been hard at work tightening up their rules and procedures, and clamping down on money launderers for fear of being slapped with huge fines by government banking regulators. (At the beginning of this year, Deutsche Bank was fined more than US$630 million for failing to prevent US$10 billion of Russian money laundering.) I would like to think that today a Cypriot bank that’s backed by Russian money would fail to get a license to operate in the UK. At the very least, American banking regulators would have jumped all over it if it had. It would seem, then, that the source material is out of date, which leads into third problem: We are being asked to believe that if Dima and his family make it to London, they’ll be safe. However, recent events have again proven otherwise. In 2015, a commission of inquiry ruled that the former Russian FSB officer-turned-MI6 informant, Alexander Litvinenko, was poisoned in 2006 with radioactive polonium-210 in an FSB operation that was probably approved by Vladimir Putin. There is no way Dima would be safe in London or anywhere else for that matter. Once again, the source material has been superseded by real events.

Finally, there’s the problem of the film’s budget which, at a mere US$4 million dollars, is another head scratcher. With four major stars in the film, how did director Susanna White do it? Did all the actors work for scale? What about her and the screenwriter, the DP and the lighting people, the set builders (granted there were a lot of exterior shots), the costumers and the makeup artists, the special effects people,…? Because the film was made on such a shoestring budget, it lacked the action and spectacle that the story needed. Yes, something does get blown up but even that scene is fairly lame by today’s movie standards. This film needed to have a budget that was ten times larger. Fortunately, the four principal actors all do solid work here, saving it from what would have been a real clunker of a film.

As it is though, OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is a very average film. See it on an airplane… or not.

Listen to the radio review recorded on RTHK Radio 4! (Click on Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 25:15.)

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