‘Our Kind of Traitor’
Director:
Susanna White
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

If you could follow the film “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” that’s probably because you had read the book. Even at only 400 pages, John le Carre’s spy classic has a lot of plot and characters and hidden motives and espionage-related gobbledygook to cram into a mere two hours and change. (The even more lauded 1979 miniseries, starring Alec Guinness, ran over five hours.) Few will suffer sustained brain farts watching “Our Kind of Traitor.” Based on an only slightly more slender Le Carre tome, it boasts a story so simple it could almost be a le Carre knockoff, as though he’d banged it out in the midst of a much deserved kind of mental detox.

The film made from it often plays like an anonymous spy thriller, too. Like a lot of the writer’s works, it’s a tale of international fisticuffs, this one involving a British couple (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) who get embroiled in a hair-raising plot involving a slimy Russian oligarch (Stellan Skarsgard). McGregor’s Perry is a bored teacher on holiday in Marrakech, who one idle evening runs afoul of Skarsgard’s Dima — a glad-handing happy drunk who insists through slurs and an over-the-top accent that he become his new best bud. The two become close enough that Perry winds up playing the unlikely go-between for him and the English government. Dima wants to defect, knowing full well that his country doesn’t take kindly to apostates. (The solitary upside to Putin is that writers can once against bust out Cold War-sounding plots.)

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The basics of the plot are moldy and familiar, even logic-straining. Here we have the British government giving the go-ahead for two civilians to waddle into deadly international affairs, even jetting to Russia knowing full well their presence will arch enemy eyebrows. (It’s also sad to see the terrific Harris stuck in the role of the token nagging wife whose husband just wants to have some excitement for once.) But as with his adaptation of Patrick Highsmith’s “The Two Faces of August,” screenwriter Hossein Amini (also of “Drive”) honors a text’s straightforward-ness while teasing out character complexities.

And yet it still feels routine. The 1966 film of le Carre’s “The Spy Who in from the Cold” is simple, too, but it stews in a stark melancholy and a remote-brooding Richard Burton turn. McGregor is fine and earnest but he never comes alive as a hero. He fits in with a movie that often feels stock, TV-movie-ish. That’s despite the presence of Anthony Tod Mantle, Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer, who exhausts himself creating smeary images: shooting through windows and glass, stranding his actors in dim lighting, shaking up the frames with wobbly handheld. You can almost hear the pre-production discussions, with director Susanna White (of “Nanny McPhee Returns,” as it were) talking about how the unclean look reflects a world that teems with mistrust. A score that might have arrived in the editing booth Dropbox account titled “generic adult thriller music.zip” doesn’t help. 

And yet underrate “Traitor” and it can only surprise you, even if it’s in little ways, certainly not in the machinations of its plot. For awhile Damian Lewis seems to be merely collecting a paycheck as a stern higher-up in British Intelligence, only to slowly, masterfully reveal a fuller character. (The turning point comes when he starts dropping f-bombs.) And Skarsgard is touchingly puppydog-ish — a little pathetic but also brave as he tries to smile through his mounting anxieties, keeping up appearances as a lumbering souse even as he plots his escape. Personality goes a long way, and “Traitor” has just enough to get it by, if not enough to make it more than something you idly click on while surfing Netflix Instant before conking out.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge