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Stanley Kubrick once sent his friend John le Carré a letter about why he couldn’t adapt one of the author’s books. “Essentially,” he wrote, “how do you tell a story it took the author 165,000 (my guess) good and necessary words to tell, with 12,000 words (about the number of words you get to say in a two hour movie, based on 150wpm speaking rate, less 30% silence and action) without flattening everybody into gingerbread men?” Chuckle all you want at the hilariously precise Kubrickian calculations, but in the letter (which can be found at the Stanley Kubrick Archive, held by University of the Arts London) the director makes an astute point. As far as action and incident are concerned, le Carré’s expansive stories are often dense and mundane. But the way the characters think, speculate and speak — and the detailed milieu in which the author sets them — makes the books compelling, even riveting. And for that you need “good and necessary words” — a lot of them.
Many filmmakers have wrestled with le Carré’s words; few have won out. The best recent le Carré adaptation I’ve seen, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, discarded plot clarity and instead elevated atmosphere and psychology: You could smell the years of cigarette smoke caked into the gray walls of its Cold War interiors and follow the characters’ glances — indicative of secret passions and long-held resentments — even if you didn’t care too much about the incomprehensible minutiae of who-did-what-where-and-when. I saw the film three times, always moved by it, and still couldn’t explain to you a damn thing that happened in it.
Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor, adapted by Hossein Amini, doesn’t quite have as ornate a story or as vast a cast to work with — the book is one of le Carré’s shorter works — but even one richly drawn figure can buy a lot of suspense. The plot is built around the very idea of charisma. During a vacation in Marrakech, Perry (Ewan McGregor), a forlorn English academic trying to mend his marriage to lawyer Gail (Naomie Harris), is approached by boisterous Russian businessman Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who spends long nights partying and drinking thousand-dollar bottles of champagne. Their meeting, however, turns out to have been not entirely coincidental.
Dima is a veteran money launderer for the Russian Mafia, and he’s about to lose his empire — and most likely his life — to a brutal new kingpin called the Prince who is consolidating power and slaying anyone who gets in the way. So Dima wants to escape with his family to safety in the U.K., and is prepared to give up both the Prince and some high-ranking British officials tainted by mob ties. Perry chooses to help Dima get in touch with MI6, even though he himself knows nothing about espionage.
That sounds promisingly Hitchcockian, but since the source is le Carré, the story winds up being more about budget approvals, account numbers and government oversight than international conspiracies or last-minute escapes (though one of those is quite effective, marvelously staged by White). But our investment in the characters holds it together. As played by Skarsgård, Dima is a wonderful creation: a tattooed, garrulous bear of a man who regards sex and violence with nonchalance but perks up at any demonstration of honor or bravery. You can tell this crook has seen some shit and that the rarest thing in his world right now is an honest man — a touching revelation.
The mostly reactive Perry doesn’t captivate quite so much. He’s a typical spy-story protagonist: the wrong man in the wrong place at the right time. But McGregor brings depth to the role. He beautifully portrays his character’s thinking: His sharp, inquisitive eyes and thin lips seem forever caught between a smile and a grimace. That uncertainty serves the story well, as bookish Everyman Perry befriends world-weary criminal Dima and mulls how far to risk his own life in the process. Theirs is a classic matchup, and Our Kind of Traitor is at its best when it lets them dance.