I sit in a theater, an audience of one for “Our Kind of Traitor,” and I ponder something producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald said about Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson when “The Island” came out back in 2005.
They aren’t “superstars,” they said. Movie stars? Maybe. But neither could open a picture, then, and that sci-fi thriller bombed. A decade later, Johansson can open a movie (“Lucy”) and is something of a superstar.
McGregor? As I said, I’m in the theater, all alone.
McGregor makes interesting choices and has the same boyish screen presence he’s always had. But he can’t make people show up for “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” or “Miles Ahead” or “Son of a Gun.” And they should. His movies are invariably smart, with “Our Kind of Traitor” fitting that description to a T.
If you’re making an espionage picture, you can’t go far wrong signing on to a John LeCarre adaptation. Even if you’re casting McGregor — as a leery but easily bullied college professor sucked into the role of passing a message from a Russian money-launderer about a corrupt British politician to British intelligence — a bit on-the-nose.
And even if the movie itself is a bit of a far-fetched tease, like its opening scene, a sex-interrupted idyll featuring nudity. McGregor and James Bond’s latest Miss Moneypenny, Naomie Harris, play a couple trying to mend a busted marriage in Marrakech, of all places. That’s where Perry, a “professor of poetics,” meets Dima, a gregarious Russian (Is there no other type?) who bullies, taunts and tempts Perry into lurid, sordid parties with his hard-drinking Russian pals and assorted strippers and hookers.
Perry tries to be a good boy. Gail (Harris) is off taking business calls. But the hooker says what people have always said about Ewan McGregor.
“You’re so pretty.” “So are you.”
It’s a trite melodramatic convention that husband and wife are insistently forced into the company of the Russian, but seeing as how he’s played by Stellan Skarsgard, we get it. We’re leery, as are Gail and Perry. He seems secretive, scary, maybe. But he’s so all-embracing, so full of cliched Russian love-of-life (and a sloppy drunk Russkie accent), how could they resist?
But he’s picked them for something sensitive, passing on a tip contained on a memory stick. It could implicate a British government minister, which would tickle this certain MI-6 agent (Damien Lewis), if not the politician (Jeremy Northam) himself. The struggling couple must make their way through Europe, past operatives from both sides who may mean them harm.
There’s a color palette to LeCarre’s world of spooks and “Whitehall Mandarins,” the higher-ups pulling the strings, and “Our Kind of Traitor” nails it, even in the sun-baked backroads of Morocco, or the garishly-lit evenings. Gun-metal blues and autumnal yellows I always associate with his books are more in evidence as the couple dashes across Europe.
And Skarsgard makes for an unforgettable character, a shambling, rich wreck covered in tattoos, loving the good life while it lasts, but a man with a photographic memory and a mission. Which McGregor and Harris, a most believable couple, must haplessly carry out as Lewis, all pursed-lips and clipped, Hugo Weaving in “V for Vendetta” cadences, urges them to do.
The intrigues are rather routine in ways that point out that perhaps the director of a “Nanny McPhee” movie wasn’t the best choice for this. But McGregor, Harris, Skarsgard and Lewis give fair value and give this the lived-in feel of even the most far-fetched LeCarre plots.
Even if there isn’t a “superstar” in the lot.
MPAA Rating:R for violence, language throughout, some sexuality, nudity and brief drug use.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Damien Lewis, Jeremy Northam
Credits: Directed by Susanna White, script by Hossein Amini, based on the John LeCarre novel. A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:47