Our Kind of Traitor review: “never quite lives up to its promise”

Ewan McGregor gets in over his head with mafia man Stellan Skarsgard and MI6 agent Damian Lewis in a spy-duggery tale by numbers from John le Carré

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★★★

Imagine the following scenario. You are on holiday with your partner, and the two of you are befriended by a wealthy man who keeps inviting you to glamorous parties. After a few days, the man reveals that he is involved with the Russian mafia. He explains that his family are in danger, and he asks you for help. What do you do?

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In Our Kind of Traitor, this dilemma is presented to Perry (Ewan McGregor), a poetry professor from London. At the start of the film, Perry and his girlfriend, Gail (Naomie Harris), are in Marrakesh, and they are having dinner in an expensive restaurant. When Gail has to leave on account of her work, Perry is invited to have a drink with Dima (Stellan Skarsgard), a flamboyant Russian accountant who likes to party. 

Over the next few days, Dima insists that Perry and Gail enjoy his hospitality. He ensures that they meet his family, and he invites them to an extravagant birthday celebration at a swanky villa. When Perry is alone, Dima decides to come clean, revealing that he is the principle money launderer for the Russian mafia. Concerned about the safety of his wife and children, he is looking for a way out, so he asks Perry to deliver classified information to MI6.

At this point, Perry brings the intel to a dogged MI6 agent named Hector (Damian Lewis), and the stage is set for a gripping spy drama. Regrettably, though, Our Kind of Traitor never quite lives up to its promise, and the end result is disappointingly average. The story is mildly intriguing throughout, but there are no surprises along the way, and far too many scenes play out in a predictable manner. You know when a character is about to die, and you know when something is about to explode. Consequently, there isn’t much in the way of tension or excitement.

It doesn’t help that Perry’s motivations are unconvincing. As the story unfolds, he goes to great lengths to help Dima, and you start to wonder why he is risking his life for a man he barely knows. Instead of providing us with a satisfying explanation, the film serves up a curious scene where Perry admits that he doesn’t know the answer. “Why are you still here?” asks Dima. “I’ve no idea,” responds Perry.

In terms of the performances, McGregor and Skarsgard are fine. Harris is underused as Perry’s girlfriend, but Lewis is central to the plot, since his bespectacled agent is trying to negotiate with Dima. The former Homeland star is attempting a posh accent that sounds unnatural from time to time, but he gives the film a slight lift whenever he is on screen. On top of this, his character gets the film’s most interesting storyline, which involves a prominent British politician who is allowing dirty money to enter the UK.

Ultimately, though, Our Kind of Traitor isn’t as good as you might expect, given that it is based on a John le Carré novel. In recent years, le Carré’s work has been adapted into a TV series – The Night Manager – and a couple of feature films, the best of which is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Our Kind of Traitor isn’t in the same league as that film, but if you’re looking for a globetrotting espionage thriller to pass the time, you could do worse. 

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Our Kind of Traitor is in cinemas from Friday 13 May