Sunday 7 August 2016

Our Kind Of Traitor (2016) - Movie Review

I… have no words. This film has left me speechless in the best possible way. And no, that doesn’t mean the rest of this review is going to be just a blank screen; I just don’t know how to open this review without either getting into details that are already in the review itself, or just breaking down and saying “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, SEE THIS MOVIE!” For reasons why, let’s get into it.

The plot: While on holiday in Marrakech, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Gail (Naomi Harris) run into Russian gangster Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who has evidence that the leader of the Russian Mafia, The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin), is expanding operations into London with the help of some prominent politicians and bankers. Having no-one else to turn to, he asks Perry to smuggle the information into London and to the proper authorities. They get the information to investigator Hector (Damian Lewis), and as the wheels are set in motion to use the intel and keep its holders safe, it seems like disaster could strike at any time.

These have got to be some of the most defined characters I’ve seen on screen in far too long and, fittingly, they all have great actors to match them. Perry has near-superhuman selflessness that could have come across like the second coming of Space Jesus all over again, but McGregor keeps the role secure to the ground and manages to balance both his shortcomings and his dead-on moral compass. Opposite him is Harris and, while I have a mild gripe with how weirdly cold she acts in one scene, that is quickly remedied as she makes for a very caring presence that works especially well when paired with McGregor.

Skarsgård is a lot of fun to watch, playing this roguish zero-sugar-coating gangster who sells both the braggart business manner and his deep caring for his family pretty much flawlessly. He also gets an amazing mic drop moment near the end in a scene opposite The Prince, definitely one of my new favourite film moments of the year. Lewis initially comes across as your standard hard-nosed government official who just wants to see justice served, but as we see more of his background and why he is pursuing this particular case as much as he is, he brings the humanity of the story home even more, making his soapboxing moments where he tells the politicians his view to their faces have that much greater an impact. Even the blue-eyed killer played Pawel Szajda, who literally doesn’t have a name beyond the moniker “The Blue-Eyed Killer”, brings a very unnerving presence to every frame of the film he’s in. He’s kind of like Vincent Gallo in The Brown Bunny, only the serial killer vibe here is wholly intentional.

Right from the opening credits, this film is absolutely spellbinding with its visuals. Director Susanna White’s only other feature-length film credit is for the sequel to Nanny McPhee and is primarily known for TV work, but you certainly wouldn’t guess that just from looking at this thing. The emphasis on mirrors and shadows to build on the film’s main theme of deceit, a colour palette that floods every single scene with all the mood they need before anyone starts talking; this is the kind of film that makes me glad that I read as obsessively into films as I do because I doubt I would have been able to appreciate all of this in my pre-Critic days. This is bolstered by the cinematography done by Anthony Dod Mantle, whom we last checked in with on In The Heart Of The Sea.

However, whereas that film was ultimately so lame that I had to pair it with a review of porn to keep myself interesting, this camera work pretty much is porn as, between the sweeping location shots and the phenomenal framing of the populated frames, this is simply gorgeous to look at. I’ve made my stance on the more ‘moving pictures’ style of filmmaking known by now, but this is where that style ultimately ends up working. The reason for that is, as well as every frame serving as its own frame-worthy picture, the textual reasons for why these shots are set up the way they are isn’t as obtuse as it usually is for this mode of cinematic storytelling.

This script is adapted from the book of the same name by John Le Carré, who also wrote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which got its own film adaptation (well, technically its second) a few years ago. Said adaptation was done by Hossein Amini, the writer of such lauded works as Snow White And The Huntsman and 47 Ronin. Now, once we’re all done wincing, I would just like to remind you that he was also the pen behind another visually captivating piece of cinema with Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. So, the man seems to work best when he has concrete source material to adhere to if this is any indication. However, rather than just gutting the prose like he did with Drive, this film feels like it has been kept relatively intact. Sure, White and Mantle get to flex some serious visual muscle here, but the words that occupy the actors’ mouths don’t feel like they have been slashed to ribbons to make the visuals fit.

In fact, this film manages to do one better than the aforementioned Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film in that this doesn’t feel overly intricate nor needless cold and/or distant. Going against pretty much everything that I have come to expect from a modern-day spy film, this is less about an ingeniously laid-out plot and more about the people who are involved in said plot. In fact, if anything, the straight-up story might be the weakest aspect of this film. Its slow and rather methodical pace means that there isn’t the usual bombardment of double-crosses and twists and things are honestly a lot easier to keep up with, but the actual details of the plot to expose The Prince and his dealings are almost an afterthought.

The reason why this is is that, instead of focusing too much on the political notions of such a story, it instead goes for the more emotional route. And my word, is this easily the most emotionally affecting film I’ve seen in quite some time. Through incredibly subtle touches, we get a very definite view of who our characters are, their flaws, their motives and ultimately why we should care about what happens to them. It’s because of this, and the incredibly thick atmosphere of “Oh God, please don’t let bad things happen to them”, that the film’s genre-named ‘thrills’ end up working.

As for the characters themselves, we get a collection of people who, despite how their relatively minor vices like chain-smoking and Mafia dealings are depicted, genuinely want what is best for others. Gail may be cold at first, but only because she truly cares for her husband’s safety. Hector may be a bit of a hard arse, but he definitely sympathies with the notion of protecting one’s family. Dima may be a lewd and crude gangster, but you feel every bit of weight he puts on protecting his wife and children. Perry may have a bit of a history of being unfaithful and might be a tad naïve, but he still serves as a singular embodiment of humanity’s capacity for compassion and selflessness. No joke, even without anything intensely emotional going on on-screen, I found myself getting severely choked up purely from how honourable and objectively ‘good’ they are, all without them feeling like unattainable holistic avatars. Hell, with how the film concludes (and no spoilers here for that one), I left the cinema wanting to be even half as a good of a human being as Perry was. I may have been somewhat joking about how much I connected with characters like Ronnie Kray, but this is the genuine article.

All in all, from front to back, this film is almost transcendent in how great it is. Rather than going for visceral action or heady plotting, the spy caper found here is one built on its characters, and through the astoundingly good writing and acting, said characters create some of the most hard-hitting drama and emotion that I have seen all year. Add to that the film-school stunning visuals and the pacing that draws out the importance of every moment without any of them overstaying their welcome, and you have something that I have no hesitation in calling capital-A Art.

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