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film review

Our Kind Of Traitor, starring Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris, is tense enough, but lacks lustre and pizzazz.

Did we believe in James Stewart as the titular everyman in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much? We totally did. Did we believe in Cary Grant as a Madison Avenue executive mistaken for a spy in Hitchcock's North by Northwest? One supposes so. And do we believe in Ewan McGregor as the poetry professor Perry Makepeace, who by pure happenstance gets roped into some good old-fashioned international espionage involving a money-laundering Russian oligarch and British intelligence officers?


Early on in Our Kind of Traitor, a capable enough adaptation of the 2010 John le Carré novel, we find McGregor's Makepeace (some name) befriended by Dima, an outsized and gregarious Russian businessman played with ravenous enthusiasm by Stellan Skarsgard. It's a party in exotic Marrakesh, and baby does it swing – with blondes on stallions and pool-side cocaine. "What," Makepeace asks himself, "am I doing here?"

The camera lens gets blurry. Makepeace successfully breaks up a rape and gets slugged for his valiance. He's extracted from the party by the burly Dima, but he's clearly in over his head.

What follows is a somewhat convincing British spy thriller and entertaining cook's tour through Paris, the French Alps and London. Directed by Susanna White and written by Hossein Amini, Our Kind of Traitor packs a middleweight punch and no wit. The intrigue is loose, but Skarsgard is gloriously heavy. He's also buck naked, at times.

But let's get back to Makepeace. He's married to a sparky lawyer played by Naomie Harris. Let's hope you know this talented actress from the James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre, because you won't know her from Our Kind of Traitor. She's underused and, pretty much literally, along for the ride here. That the producers don't get their Moneypenny's worth out of her is not her fault, though.

She's been wronged by Makepeace; their trip to Morocco was made in hopes of restoring their relationship. Our man gets his chance at redemption when he becomes embroiled in a high-stakes plot involving the British foreign service, the Russian Mafia and political bribery.

What happens is that Dima is being squeezed out by a new brand of Russian mafia that is dishonourable. He wants to turn on them by striking a deal with British intelligence, thus ensuring the safety of his family. (Our kind of traitor.) Because Dima can trust no one, he enlists a layman – Makepeace – to help him get shady global banking information into the right hands.

Makepeace finds his professorship to be unsatisfying – poetry is boring "when you study it under a microscope" – and maybe he's secretly relishing his unlikely introduction into the world of international sneakery. Maybe he is, but it doesn't really come across by McGregor. A little more Walter Mitty from him would spice up the character. As it is, his earnestness comes from a place of wanting to do the right thing, thus rectifying a moral transgression of his from the past.

The result is Makepeace as a bland hero. The likeable McGregor may be our kind of star, but he's not Hitchcock's.

Have I mentioned Damian Lewis? He's Hector, a taciturn MI6 officer with a real hate on for a former boss of his who is now a high-ranking politician – one he strongly suspects of snakery. He's resourceful and determined, but understaffed. Thus he has no problem at all putting Makepeace and his wife in harm's way.

Like James Bond, Hector constantly runs up against bureaucratic interference. Unlike Bond, he wouldn't know a Pussy Galore if she popped up in his soup. (He likes to cook!)

Scratch off Lewis as a contender for the new Bond actor. As for McGregor, he may have failed his audition as well. Our Kind of Traitor is tense enough, but lacks lustre and pizzazz. Perhaps a better-utilized Harris could have popped things up. So, back to Bonds, maybe it's time for a promotion, for Harris and Moneypenny both.