Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

Our Man in Nirvana
It was My Mother...You Get Sentimental.

It seems to be another good year for John le Carré adaptations. The BBC did a quite honorable version of his 1993 "The Night Manager", and this, Our Kind of Traitor—one of David Cornwell's shorter books—is just concise enough to make it to feature film length without feeling like cheating the source. I have a particular love for le Carré's books, as I've been reading them since the Cold War days with their intricate chess strategies between spy networks, undermined by human frailties and loyalties, often drawn with Dickensian complexity and piquancies. With glasnost, le Carré's antagonists moved from behind the Iron Curtain and into the boardrooms of friendly nations, criminals by nature but with an undercover veneer of prosperity and prominence. Their goals were not political (were the others, really?) so much as a craven desire for power...and more of it and taking down any threats to acquiring it. Although the targets were different, the battles were business, as usual.

His protagonists are not larger-than-life secret agents hiding in plain sight, but government functionaries, rumpled men, flawed and quite extraordinary in their ordinariness, or Hitchcockian innocents caught in the gears of machinations they were quite unaware of working in the background. 

Le Carré's characters either are professionals keeping secrets or amateurs having secrets thrust upon them, but are compelled by their Nature to do the best they can, even to the point of sacrifice. Sometimes they suffer for their efforts and sometimes they can't accomplish their goals with 100% satisfaction. In the current political climate, such might be labeled "losers." They've always been heroes to me, even if they're mourned rather than lauded.

But, the stakes have changed. In the earlier simpler times, they've fought for ideals, for governments. But, around the time of "The Russia House," that changed. In that version of Casablanca-turned-on-its-head, it is not that "the problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world," but they weigh a lot more in a topsy-turvy crazy world of overstuffed bureaucracies in which ideals are sacrificed for not much and for the most worthless of McGuffins. The loyalties are spoken very plainly in that novel (and film) by it's ex-pat Brit: "You're my country now." When the country of your birth proves undeserving of loyalty, better to take it personally, on a human level, and protect what you can...and what you should.
Perry Makepiece (Ewan McGregor) is good at keeping secrets. A teacher on Holiday in Marrakech with his lawyer-girlfriend Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris), he's trying to patch things up with her after having an affair with one of his students. But Gail is diffident, not trusting him, and business back home pulls her away from a dinner at an expensive restaurant, leaving Perry alone. What do you do to fill the gaps left by absence?
Perry is invited by a fellow restaurant patron, a garrulous, gregarious Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård, looking the worst for wear but giving one of his best performances) to join him for some after-dinner drinking. Drinking leads to gamesmanship and an invite to a party with sex, drugs and rock and roll, but when Perry stumbles on a rape in progress, he interferes despite being physically outmatched by the perpetrator. Dima interjects, and perhaps noting Perry's tendency to "white knight," invites him and Gail to his daughter's birthday party. When Perry comes back in the morning, his lawyer-lover cross-examines him about where he's been and why he's scruffed up, suspecting that he's catting around again. But, Perry tells her about his encounter with Dima and mentions the birthday party. Gail is reluctant, but accompanies him.
At the party, the two are overwhelmed by Dima's extravagance (his daughter is given a camel for her birthday...a camel, not a pony) and by his generosity with his time and his family. But, at some point Perry and Dima disappear, leaving Gail fuming a bit, but this may be one of those times when it's best not to find out too much.

Dima gives Perry a flash-drive, which he wants delivered to "MI6." Dima is a money launderer for a Russian drug cartel, which is going through a spate of extremely hostile take-overs by a kingpin calling himself The Prince. A friend of Dima's, a fellow "account manager," has been murdered, along with his wife and oldest daughter and Dima suspects his organization's next, and when that happens...Perry is tasked to contact Intelligence so that Dima can get his family, and with luck himself, to the West. Perry agrees. He doesn't tell Gail.
At customs, Perry reveals what he's got and authorities detain him, bringing in investigator Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis) and Luke Weaver (Khalid Abdalla) to question him for hours, leaving Gail quite peeved. When she finds out about all the hub-bub at the airport hub, she thinks Perry has gone mad—what has he gotten himself into now? A suspicious alliance forms between Perry and Hector, who has his own reasons for handling all this personally—he's on the "outs" at the Service, due to the arrest and incarceration of his son for drug possession, a prosecution pushed for by a government official (Jeremy Northam) Hector has been investigating for collusion with the Soviets. He's warned by his boss, Billy Matlock (Mark Gatiss, co-creator and "Mycroft" of the new "Sherlock") to not take it too personally or any gains might be "disappeared" again.
But, it's personal for everybody. As personal as family. And governments, bureaucracies and spies know bupkis about "family values." They know little about trust. And act accordingly.
Performances by the cast are measured and assured throughout, everyone having outstanding moments and director Susanna White keeps things low-key and lived-in. Its another fine adaptation of le Carré with no false notes or grand-standing. Definitely recommended, it's my kind of movie.

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