Beware a jovial Stellan Skarsgård. The actor has so often played dire and/or imposing scarf-wearing men (he even looked grim during Mamma Mia!, though in retrospect, perhaps that was understandable) that a Skarsgård character inviting a stranger over to have a drink with him and his comrades should be cause for immediate suspicion. But poor college professor Perry (Ewan McGregor, boasting long hair and a contrasting buttoned-up manner) shows only the minimum reluctance at the outset of Our Kind Of Traitor. Tensions with his lawyer wife, Gail (Naomie Harris), have radiated through an aborted attempt at a romantic dinner during an aborted attempt at a romantic getaway. So when Dima (Skarsgård boasting long hair and a complementary boisterous Russian accent) beckons and immediately starts referring to Perry with a booming, affectionate cry of “PROFESSOR,” Perry responds. The two men form a mutual trust at a near-ludicrous speed.
Dima, as it turns out, is a money-launderer who wants out of the Russian mob and hopes Perry will be able to deliver information to British intelligence, which will help him and his family. The pinched, officious face of British intelligence is provided by Damian Lewis as Hector, who intercepts Perry and Gail when they return to England. Perry has several opportunities to more or less cut and run, but he sticks around and tries to work his way out of this mess as befits the particularly unslick hero of a John le Carré spy novel, from which Our Kind Of Traitor was adapted.
Our Kind Of Traitor’s story requires some leaps, especially in fully believing Perry’s near-instant loyalty to Dima and his ability to participate in complex international espionage. But the film balances out some potential preposterousness with quotidian details of Dima’s and Perry’s respective family lives. (There is a reason for Perry and Gail’s hesitant attempts to rekindle their relationship.) For that matter, the spy stuff isn’t ridiculous enough to qualify as sexy. Even for a le Carré adaptation—sometimes an invitation for dry realism—much of the story flirts with the rote: exposition dumps, uncooperative spooks and bureaucrats, and the frequent exchange of meaningful glances.
Director Susanna White, on only her second feature, jazzes up the proceedings to match the skill of actors like McGregor, Harris, and Skarsgård. Most notable is her smart use of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Together they give the movie bleary textures and rich colors, especially its yellows, blues, and greens. Some of the visuals have a dreamy edge without going full-tilt feverish, striking just the right balance of shimmery glamour and digital grit. White also gooses interpersonal conflicts by often framing McGregor and Harris through glass or having them share the frame via their reflections.
The presence of Trainspotting’s McGregor, 28 Days Later’s Harris, and the cinematographer of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, among others, brings to mind Danny Boyle, which in turn can make Our Kind Of Traitor feel like the kind of stodgier British films Boyle’s rebelled against fed through more modern filmmaking techniques. But White’s keen eye and her strong cast make a case for this type of hybrid, which matches the marriage of domestic and geopolitical drama at the film’s center. Our Kind Of Traitor develops, slowly but not dully, into the right kind of old-fashioned thriller.