Within the first few scenes of the new John le Carré-inspired espionage thriller Our Kind Of Traitor, Ewan McGregor is rejected by incumbent Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), befriends a Russian gangster, and winds up chatting to an exotic seductress at a snazzy mafia party. Some called Bastille Day Idris Elba’s Bond audition tape, but this 007 application from Mr McGregor is much more blatant.
The good news, since two hours of Bond-aping could get boring, is that this isn’t what the film is all about. McGregor’s character Perry isn’t actually suave, sophisticated or even a spy. He’s a teacher who’s merely stumbled into this world by accident. It’s a neat starting point for an unpredictable narrative, which serves up plenty of intrigue along the way to an action-packed conclusion.
Opposite McGregor at the heart of the movie is Stellan Skarsgård’s Dima, a Russian mob bean-counter considering a defection to England. A cocktail of threats and family matters has emerged, and when he spots McGregor’s awkward holidaymaking Brit lingering at a hotel bar, he sees an opportunity to get out this game once and for all.
Dima and Perry bond on a personal level, chatting at parties and playfully battling on the tennis court. Perry’s other half Gail (Harris) is baffled by the whole situation, but it’s obvious to the viewer that a genuine connection has been forged between the unlikely duo. Without this friendship, this whole film could fall flat, but the easy chemistry between McGregor and Skarsgård stops that from happening.
The film does lag a bit when they’re not together, after Perry arrives back in the UK with a memory stick full of sensitive information. Dima wants him to give it to MI5, who are represented by Damian Lewis’ Hector. To say much more about the plot would be to give away spoilers, yet inevitably this favour results in plenty of complications.
Lewis’ character (although not his performance) is the weak link, for me. We get long stretches with him away from the leads, which rids Our Kind Of Traitor of its momentum at points. As a smarmy secret service employee, he’s the most one-dimensional of the characters, and the things he’s given to do (such as sitting outside the Emirates Stadium in a van with Mark Gatiss) fail to ignite much intrigue.
It’s over on the continent where things really get interesting, with the most memorable scene of the film appearing around the halfway point of the movie in the unlikeliest of settings – an indoor sports centre. Here director Susanna White squeezes nerve-shredding tension out of a mundane situation, a testament to her own versatility. Her last movie, after all, was the wildly different Nanny McPhee And The Big Bang.
Our Kind Of Traitor is very much worth watching. There’s heaps of tension, impressive direction and two great performances to enjoy. To have a movie in the spy genre focused on a friendship feels like a breath of fresh air. Warmly recommended.
Our Kind Of Traitor reaches UK cinemas on Friday 13th May.