If you’ve been watching Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie bring the literary espionage of John le Carré to vibrantly suspenseful life on AMC’s The Night Manager, then you should already be panting for Our Kind of Traitor. Sadly, it’s not quite as tasty. But director Susanna White, working from a savvy script by Hossein Amini, finds a way to get the job done with her own brand of playful polish.
The film flies highest on the wings of two dynamite actors: Stellan Skarsgard as Dimitri “Dima” Vladimirovich Krasnov, a big, roaring bear of a Russian money launderer looking to defect; and Damian Lewis as Hector Meredith, a reserved British intelligence officer who helps save Dima and his family as long as it suits his own agenda, which may be more personal than it is professional. What hurts is that Skarsgard and Lewis must take a backseat to a pair of characters who occupy more screen time. They would be Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor), a college professor, and his barrister girlfriend Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris). No knock on McGregor and Harris — fine actors both — but they never hold us rapt the way the plot demands. Perry and Gail are on vacation to heal a relationship bruised by Perry’s habit of boffing his students.
In Marrakesh, they meet Dima and his family and get in over their heads by reaching out to Hector and helping Dima and his family defect before a revenge plot wipes them out. The device is pure Hitchcock, something akin to James Stewart and Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. But White lacks the master’s skill at building and sustaining our interest in these fish out of water. It’s the cat-and-mouse game between Dima and Hector that creates the almost unbearable tension and suspense. It also reveals the humanity in two dangerous men whose survival mechanism relies on keeping their personal feelings in check. By the end, Lewis — outstanding in TV projects as diverse as Homeland, Billions and Wolf Hall —takes possession of the movie by revealing, with quiet devastation, a lifelong cynic in the act of growing a conscience.