The piecing together of John le Carré's Our Kind of Traitor
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The latest John le Carré adaptation to hit the screen (on May 13th across the UK), Our Kind of Traitor is the dramatic story of an unsuspecting married couple, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris), who are caught up in a dangerous world of international espionage and dirty politics when they meet an imposing and charismatic Russian called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) while on holiday in Marrakech.
When Dima asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services, the pair are propelled on a perilous journey through Paris and Bern, and a safe house in the French Alps, to the murky corners of the City of London and an alliance with the British Government in the shape of a principled but maverick MI6 agent Hector Meredith (Damian Lewis).
“One of the strengths of le Carré’s work is that he incorporates very important themes into a rollercoaster ride of a thriller,” says screenwriter Hossein Amini. “The audience is thrown into the shoes of an innocent couple and there are dangers lurking around every corner.”
Director Susanna White, whose astonishing breadth of work ranges from Nanny McPhee to Generation Kill via Jane Eyre, was drawn to the very cinematic aspect of the story, as well as its contemporary themes.
“I have grown up with le Carré,” says White, “and most of his other stories have looked backwards into the past and been set in a world of darkish interiors. Our Kind of Traitor is a big road movie, travelling across five countries. It's a le Carré for now.”
Damian Lewis, who plays British MI6 agent Hector Meredith, says it is as much a character piece as a suspenseful thriller: “It’s not a whodunit, it’s more of a can they do it?”
“One of the themes of le Carré’s work is that Britain has declined as a world power but we still have these British values that come from a time when Britain was on top of the world and had a moral responsibility,” adds Amini. “As that power has waned, that morality has turned into something far more like compromise. That’s what our film is about. There are those who are willing to anger the Russian authorities to help this man Dima escape, and there are those who are opposed to that and are probably working with the Russians, all within the British system.”
Stellan Skarsgård is an immense presence as he gets under the skin of Dima. “Dima is a money launderer with the Vory, a kind of mafia that comes from the prisons in the old Soviet system,” he explains. “In the film the modern version of the Vory has started cooperating with the State and with the Kremlin. And to Dima, an old warrior, that is outrageous, that is treason. But it also means he is in conflict with the leadership and it means those people will kill him. And not only him but his family too. Dima is trying to save his family.”
The relationship between the attractive, comfortably-off Perry, a university lecturer in poetics, and Gail, a prominent barrister, starts in a broken place after Perry’s recent fling with one of his students. Naomie Harris was delighted to play the role of a powerful and glamorous woman who is battling with sadness and anger at her husband’s betrayal in the midst of all the fast-paced action.
“You don’t really see that in most films,” she says. “[But] there are bumps in whatever relationship, no matter how good. It is nice to see a mature relationship which is going through a very serious hiccup and is managing to find a way through. There’s also this kind of old-world elegance about the le Carré world, which is really beautiful, and the intellectual intrigue of the whole thing, of working out and piecing together the story, I think people find that really fascinating.”
“It’s harder and harder to find movies like this,” says McGregor, “but it’s what le Carré does best in that his characters are very real, very human, and in this case even more so because he’s put two civilian people into the world of espionage. He’s plonked them right in the middle of this thriller. That’s interesting because you think, ‘What would I do in this situation? How would I react?’”
Our Kind of Traitor is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13 May