All the smart spy dramas these days seem to be based on novels by English author John Le Carré, longtime master of espionage fiction. Just in the last few years we’ve seen Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and A Most Wanted Man, showcasing the talents of Gary Oldman and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman respectively. Now there’s a new film called Our Kind of Traitor, directed by Susanna White and adapted to the screen by Hossein Amini. It’s more modest an effort than most Le Carré films, not trying to make big statements but delivering the tension and intrigue of a good story.
Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play a married couple, Perry and Gail—he’s a teacher and she’s a successful lawyer—who are vacationing in Morocco. Alone at a bar when his wife has to make a business call, Perry meets a gregarious Russian named Dima, played by Stellan Skarsgard, who invites him to a lavish party and the next day to play tennis. Dima, as you might expect, is not some tourist, but a money launderer for the Russian mob. A new boss has taken over, and is hooking up with the Kremlin while knocking off all the old gangsters, and Dima thinks that he and his family are next. Surrounded by people he can’t trust, he reaches out to Perry, a total stranger, asking him to take a thumb drive containing information on Russian organized crime to British intelligence in London, and promising more info if they can get him and his family out. Perry, being an honorable sort, agrees, but then he and Gail are dragged into a dangerous game by a shifty MI6 agent played by Damian Lewis.
There aren’t that many twists and turns here, just a mounting sense of dread and foreboding as the well-laid plans inevitably go wrong, and some very bad people start closing in. Ewan McGregor is the protagonist, but the film is really an opportunity for veteran actor Stellan Skarsgard to stretch out and play a big and imposing personality. He usually plays heavies and supporting characters of one sort or another—here he’s the pivot on which the story turns, and it’s a pleasure to watch him acting his heart out. Our Kind of Traitor is a fairly engrossing medium-sized thriller, but Skarsgard adds something extra.
And as incredible as thriller plots can be, truth is still stranger than fiction sometimes. So I want to quickly mention a new documentary called Tickled, directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. It starts with Farrier, a New Zealand journalist, stumbling on an online video of what it calls “competitive tickling”—guys with their hands and feet tied down being relentlessly tickled by other guys. It’s pretty hilarious, and thinking that it might be fun to write an article about this, Farrier starts to look into the American company that produces the videos. But his efforts to contact them result in a series of threatening and insulting emails and letters from a woman representing the business. Naturally this bothers him, so he keeps pursuing the story, and the reactions from the company become even more weird and scary. What starts out as a potentially amusing human interest story becomes a twisted tale of power and abuse that is both frightening and infuriating. I can’t tell you more, except that the story is so strange that I at first thought this might be a fake documentary, a spoof. But no, it’s for real.