Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 04, 2016 5:39 am 
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Another Le Carré adaptation

In Our Kind of Traitor a Russian mafia bos called Dima enlists Perry Makepeace, an English university lecturer vacationing in Morocco, to help him betray his cohorts and their collaboration with British politicians and bankers to MI6 in return for safe passage of his family to the UK.

It's frankly sometimes hard for me to see how the latest John Le Carré film adaptation is better or worse than the last because when I see them I see the excellent Le Carré novels I've read - each of them as good as the others - except that the very latest, which right now is the yet un-adapted A Delicate Truth, seems the best. Some critics indeed do think that the standout among all his recent books. But there are reasons why critics prefer the previous film, A Most Wanted Man (not counting the intervening miniseries of The Night Manager), to this new one, Our Kind of Traitor. First of all, it had Phillip Seymour Hoffman in it, his last performance. Second, though his reputation has wavered, its director, Anton Corbijn, has one, and Susanna White is an unknown.

Traitor is very clearly laid out by its skillful adaptor, Hossein Amini, who, as Anthiony Lane writes in The New Yorker, has prepared Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Elmore Leonard, and Patricia Highsmith works for the screen, and "clearly enjoys the challenge of tough texts." (Le Carré novels are, at the least, complicated.) But as in all these films, much gets lost. I'm not sure if the virgin viewer unfamiliar with the sources sees what I see; he certainly can't remember what I remember. There's a lot about Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) and his family that I remember but this film doesn't convey. There's a great deal of painful, suspenseful, detail in the action when the MI6 guy, Hector (Damian Lewis) and Dima's British "friend" Perry (Ewan McGregor) try to save them from the Russian mafia he's betrayed, that also feels missing, though there is tense action. The heart of the action survives. And enough about the scandal Dima is revealing to show it's worth MI6's initially unwilling effort.

The "old" Le Carré of the Cold War espionage years is rich in grim, moody intricacy, exemplified in the character of the betrayed, bedeviled British agent-executive George Smiley, unforgettably embodied in the BBC TV miniseries by Alec Guinness. Damien Lewis/Hector, in contrast, is hardly more than a dutiful cipher. But the focus nowadays is on finger-pointing. In the old days it was all lost in complicity, in guilt, in confusion. Now it's grown a lot clearer, and Le Carré is a whole lot angrier, the editorializing more explicit, though, unlike some, I do not see this as a fault. The excitement and dense detail have not faltered.

Very often in recent Le Carré novels there is a solitary individual (or two) who gets pressed down or ground up by the State. In A Most Wanted Man the victim is the battered young Chechan Issa Karpov. The main culprit is US government exceptionalism, America's overweening need to crush all enemies in its wake - and intelligence, information, international cooperation be damned. In the most recent A Delicate Truth, the heroes are a couple of current and former British Foreign Office employees whose desire to be whistleblowers on a failed mission - ruined this time by American free lance mercenaries who, with heavy irony, call themselves "Ethical Outcomes" - is crushed by their own government.

Our Kind of Traitor's heroes are an odd couple indeed: the loud-mouthed Russian mafia money-launderer and the quiet English don he corrals in Marrakesh to be his courier to British intelligence. Some find the relationship implausible; but it's Le Carré's way of asserting how many-leveled and global being a pawn in the game has become. Why the Brits should want to save a Russian gangster - except maybe they don't - is that he has details of high-up shady financial dealings by English big shots, including a politician whose corrupt practices have touched Hector. When we start comparing any of this in the book with the film, we begin to see why Lane spoke of "the challenge of tough texts." Le Carré's clearly far from un-adaptable: he writes such good action tales. But with his books it's not the subtle ironic nuances of the sentences movies lose, as with Jane Austen. Its all the information they have to leave out.

I admire Ben Dickenson of Elle for his enthusiastic review of Our Kind of Traitor. He very kindly and justifiably congratulates Susanna White for her step up several notches from the mild Emma Thompson comedy Nanny McPhee Returns to this much more challenging film. He presents each of the excellent leads in the best possible light. Ewan McGregor is "in maximum urbane-heartthrob mode." Stellan Skarsgård is "in a career-defining role as a larger-than-life mensch among men." Damian Lewis is "impeccable" as "a solitary, Bondian cipher of a man."

The trouble is McGregor is an actor who tends to be a bit wan, and cast as a man already in trouble with his wife for sleeping with a student, he can't start off very strong. Can a cipher be "Bondian"? It's true, Damian Lewis is a solid kind of cipher in the film, but it hasn't time to morph him into "a mensch among men." For Dima, we need someone initially more aggressive, unappealing, scary, not to mention more Russian. Still Stellan Skarsgård provides an impressive performance - as quietly flashy as the fake tattoos all over his body we briefly glimpse in a sports club scene. The sheer strength of Skarsgård's turn makes one realize a weakness in the novel, as well as the film: it hasn't got as strong and balanced a set of main characters as A Most Wanted Man or A Delicate Truth. (The difference is that Dima's family members come through more strongly in the book.) Ultimately the most successful cast member is Naomie Harris, who plays Perry's initially disapproving, later won over, wife Gail. Without saying much Harris manages to convey everything about her character: her competence, her beauty, the return of her love.

Our Kind of Traitor, 107 mins., debuted May 2016 at San Francisco. Many international theatrical releases in May and June 2016, some in July. US limited release 1 July.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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