LE CARRÉ DIEM: Our Kind of Traitor

8 July, 2016 at 11:41 pm (film, le carré diem)

PREVIOUSLY: I watched every feature film adaption of a John le Carré novel in preparation for the U.S. theatrical release of this film, in order to write about them each in sequence.

US theatrical release poster for Our Kind of TraitorCURRENTLY: Well, let’s get down to it. Is this the apex of the Carré Canon? Obviously not, as some of the earlier efforts are considered stone-cold classics and are not going to be re-evaluated in comparison to the strengths of a film that has received a thorough critical meh in the UK upon release. It’s difficult to know exactly what the critics were hoping for, as I’ve been avoiding their write-ups for the past few weeks in order to go into my own viewing as untrammeled as possible. Now having watched the movie and weighed it, I plan on writing about it in a more free-form manner than my previous reviews, all of which were able to be planned and sourced by years if not decades of critical response, by DVD release and multiple viewings. Sure, I’d never seen Deadly Affair or Looking Glass War before, but their very absence was part of the shadow that they cast in a minor film nerd’s hunt-and-pecking through the feed trough of cinema history. I have seen this once — in a mostly empty screening populated by three elderly couples, one of whom felt like they were obligated to share their confusion with the plot and their lives with the rest of the audience &mdsah; and won’t be able to review the materiel with quite the same ease as the other titles in this series. So I plan on rambling for a bit, reacting to the reviews and any press materials that seem germane, and then putting this little experiment in using WordPress’ post-dating ability to rest. Won’t you join me for this final installment of Putting Le Carré Before Le Source?

We begin with a reasonable amount of Russians speaking Russian, mostly with subtitles, sometimes without, depending upon whether director Susanna White (Bleak House, Generation Kill) wants us to be given information or to be given tone. Her decision to have the characters talk on cell phones or murmur to each other without transition attempts to force the audience to pick up on what’s going on by watching the characters’ intent, their eyes, and by listening to the susurrus of ordinary vocal timbre. Obviously, this requires the sort of audience that is going to try and find meaning when obvious information is not provided, that is going to search for clues and not instead fold into a sulk of alienation. Bit of a risky proposition, I feel, having ridden many polyglottal subways and seen passengers threatened and worried by the indecipherable multicultural human interactions around them. I mention again the aged couple that sat a few rows behind me, mumbling through each ambiguity in a sour hunt for step-by-step plotting and motivation.

Not that this film was completely devoid of signposting, it just occasionally gave us the conflict first and the reasons a little later. An aborted attempt at lovemaking introduces poetics professor Ewan and his barrister wife Naomie, and mild discomforts and jagged edges follow for a bit before it is revealed that Ewan’s character had a dalliance with one of his students. I have nothing particularly against this kind of structural scripting, as it allows for the audience to feel little bits of joy as things previously talked Around are finally talked About, and the snap of closure provides a minor satisfaction, but it’s still fairly mechanical. And the material feels like it wants to dance on the edge of subversion of cliché, winking at expectation and then stepping calmly aside. It’s not flourishing or clever, it’s not trying to upend the espionage fiction tradition, it’s not doing the Boorman trick in Panama of saying loudly at the outset, “Well, it’s NOT JAMES BOND, now, innit?” It’s merely trying to play Theme and Variations.

Variation One is the fractured relationship between Barrister and Professor. We’ve seen Le Carré’s characters fall largely along a line of having Broken Pedestal relationships with women. George loves Ann, hopelessly, vainly. He clings to a romantic ideal of the relationship even when it is rippled with corruption, whether multiple men in Affair or one duplicitous colleague in Tinker, Tailor. We have the original character of Palfrey in Russia House, who is George lite, maintaining a long-term affair with a woman who spurns him and needs him, because he us unable to divorce himself from the ideal version of her that she sunders each time they meet up. We have Jamie Lee Curtis in Panama, played as sensible and sensual, an object of devotion that feels he can never earn or deserve, no matter how many years of marriage he’s weathered. Here, Naomie’s Gail is smarter than Ewan’s Perry, keener-eyed and less prone to straying from the plan. She’s also more monetarily successful, we are told, and it’s her expenses that could allow for an extraordinarily costly wine to be purchased in the Moroccan restaurant where Perry first encounters Skarsgard’s Dima. I love the small bit where when, upon being handed the Official Secrets Act to sign, Perry is just about to do as requested, but Gail snatches it from him and settles down to read exactly what they are agreeing to. She lives in the real world, he doesn’t understand the consequences of the actions he undertakes. He does them because they seem to be the right thing to do at the time, whether delivering Dima’s memory stick to MI6, or trying to stop an enormous Russian gangster from raping a woman at a party. He’s not smooth, he’s not careful, and he’s more interesting in the story as he works alongside his wife instead of by himself. Their disharmony means that watching them have to work in concert adds to the tension of the espionage in which they become embroiled. The film isn’t ultimately about how the events and adventures Save Their Relationship — it’s not True Lies, for pity’s sake — but the film is better when the two of them are together than apart.

McGregor, Harris, and Lewis

Variation Two is another version of George lite, it’s the thinly smiling face of Damian Lewis as Hector. Now, I don’t remember enough about my Iliad to be able to decode why Le Carré has named his characters Perry/Paris and Hector/Hektor, but I find it impossible to dismiss as coincidence. A quick scurry around Google for a summary of the classic relationship between the pair revealed this amusing thesis:

'Paris... for moral reasons could not be made the protagonist in the [Iliad]' claims John A. Scott
Which presents us with a droll lens with which to consider McGregor’s philandering Perry, who is recruited by Dima for having “honor”, and who is repeatedly manipulated and lied to by Hector, who lies to everyone in order to mount his moral war against corrupt members of Parliament. Lewis’ bright, affable determination to lie to his allies and confederates to get his way is one of the high parts of the film, but it is the moral certitude, combined with his Burberry mack and thick-rimmed glasses that make him a Smiley equivalent or at least Smiley stand-in in the film. It’s difficult to know if the director would bridle at the comparison or welcome it, whether she would resent the fact that anyone catching the memetics would be forced to weigh Lewis’ performance up against either Guinness or Oldman, or whether she’s hoping for a kind of sympathetic magic that gets the audience to root for Hector simply because he’s cosplaying as Smiley and therefore consciously or subconsciously telling us we must like him despite his methods. His little tirade about blood money isn’t quite the show-stopper the film wants it to be, in part because there’s a brittleness to Lewis’ character that doesn’t have the breathing room to suddenly and passive-aggressively engage in a lengthy, sardonic takedown of the oversight committee he’d been lying to. He has to maintain his prim control and be flourid and ironic, and I’m not sure either the film or the actor gets the balance quite right. Even the words are a little over-cooked, suitable for quoting in moral outrage on Tumblr, but not great for convincing naysayers of their righteousness. (Which is sort of the mainstay of Moral Outrage on Social Media, unfortunately.)

Some of the speech can be found in the trailer, which is a curious thing to watch after the film, as it reveals just how much work needed to be done to make it look like there might be action or gunplay on display. It’s curious how much of the penultimate scene is in the trailer, particularly moments that might well be considered spoilers. One can’t tell they’re spoilers, per se, but having seen them in the trailer will rather leave one waiting for them to happen in the film, which will make their revelation considerably more anti-climactic than their rather soft inclusion in their current form. The trailer does a fine job of highlighting that the film is quite lovely to look at, with some wonderfully scenic and stark visuals, with some opulent location scouting and a strong sense of spectacle. All of which were a pleasing component of the film a it unfolded, and a nice counterpoint to the actual unfolding of the plot, which was unhurried — not leaden, not halting, just not over-eager to pull you along to the next bit, as it was rather enjoying the atmospherics and characteristic awkwardness of this one.

It’s not a damp squib, the performances are great, even if Perry is a bit of a cipher, and the ending is sufficiently bitter to remind us all that this is, after all, a Le Carré text. And while it’s always a mistake to consider an author cameo to be an endorsement of the final project, Cornwell himself can be seen checking tickets in the entrance to the Bern museum of Albert Einstein (I’m not sure I would have instantly recognized him, despite picking him out from the back of the police car in Drummer Girl, if I hadn’t had his IMDB photo open in a browser tab for these last nine weeks. He has aged since both Drummer and Russia House‘s book jackets). Le Carré is, of course, the father of two of the producers of the film, who seem to have a pretty good hand on the till of adapting quality versions of their progenitor’s work. So, with a solidly established cottage industry of Cornwell-produced, Cornwell-approved adaptations already in the bag, why doesn’t this film quite work?

Mostly, it’s the ending. The tension is really quite marvelous throughout. Lewis’ double-dealings and willingness to lie to and sacrifice any and all in order to get what he considers justice is quite marvelously presented and acted. And once we sufficiently fall under the intensity of Skarsgard’s desire to protect his family, we worry about their survival. So they’re frmmrphmm mnnurphrmm into the ummrphm, and smuggled across into mfffrphl (sorry, it’s still new enough that some details seem crude to reveal), which then because that person does the thing, we end up with the big firefight. I found the staging of the gunfight to be beyond ridiculous, and Parry’s actions to be equally so, matched only in their indefensibility by Gail allowing him to do them. And then Dima does the thing without any real indication as to why he would know, and then Lewis’ character wins. In a way that’s supposed to make us feel like justice will out, ha ha! — but instead felt unearned, or at least pitched at the wrong tone of how much victory it would provide in contrast to the cost. I loved watching it as it happened — my reactions were very similar to Mark Kermode’s review, in that I got caught up in the suspense while admiring the staging and photography, which is an interesting superposition to enjoy — and then I felt like it shifted in execution. Or perhaps I was only willing to follow it so far, but not any farther.

A Call For the Dead, first editionCONCLUSION: To wrap this up, I went back to the beginning and read Le Carré’s first novel, A Call For The Dead to compare it to my distant memories of the second film in this series. My library provided me with a 2002 paperback re-issue, which opens with Le Carré talking about how he came to write the novel in the first place. This, however, is less odd than the first chapter, “A Brief History of George Smiley” which gives us the rundown on George and Ann and his induction into the secret services. It’s all very bright and forthright and almost totally unlike anything else Le Carré has written elsewhere. The oddest part is that later in the novel Smiley gives the audience his origin story in his own words, so we get to read it again, but this time within the tone we have come to expect. It’s all very strange, and reads like the first chapter was required by an anxious publisher, or a pitch document, or notes on the character’s background that were accidentally appended.

And, apparently, much of it is undone by Le Carré when he revises Smiley’s timeline and history for the “Karla trilogy” anyway, so it’s probably best not to dwell too much on it.

In my response to Deadly Affair, I said that the structural casting of Dieter as dual traitor, as Ann’s paramour as well as a spy, was probably found in the source novel. I was pleased to find that this wasn’t the case. Ann is actually incredibly absent from the book, much in the way she is most every subsequent Smiley novel, notable in her remove. So there are no hand-wringing scenes about needing to be over-sexed, bedroom conflict at all. The assignation of the extra role of Deiter as domestic betrayer is apparently and strange combination of the filmakers’ need to add Ann into the movie and a scene from the novel where George discovers one of the killers inside his home. The idea of traitor as cuckold, one of the core betrayals revealed in Tinker, Tailor, seems to have been created in 1966, some years before the 1974 novel. I still find this bizarre.

One of the criticisms of the second Smiley novel is that it’s a straight mystery, with no real grounding in espionage, as George has chosen to work at a school rather than continue on with his previous masters. However, I found this criticism to be somewhat specious, as Dead is clearly a mystery novel as well, with the action turning on Smiley’s pondering and sudden realization, and the revelation spelled out later in a classic summation (although in memo form, as opposed to extempore in a drawing room).

 

Related Links:
Our Kind of Traior reviews in The Guardian, The New York Times, and The A.V. Club.
Video clips provided by The Guardian and the digital presskit by SF Studios.
Le Carré’s next book is going to be The Pigeon Tunnel, a memoir, where he finally gets down to brass tacks as to what he did in the service before fictionalizing it. Announced, apparently, back in October of last year, the link for the digital ARC showed up in my feed just this week.
UPDATE: And Cornwell and Cornwell are bringing it back full circle with a new television miniseries adaptation of Spy Who Came in from the Cold. No, I don’t think I’ll do this again with all the TV adaptions leading up to when it premieres. Thanks all the same.

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