Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent
If in the fifty-odd years since British spymaster John le Carré began plying his trade as a novelist, you have somehow missed any of the screen versions of his works, know this: there are favorites. Everybody has one: from 1965’s Richard Burton classic The Spy Who Came in From The Cold to 2005’s The Constant Gardener (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) to 2011’s Gary Oldman-starrer Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.
The author, born David John Moore Cornwell (1931-), hasn’t helped matters by continuing to write brilliant works and toying with his audience, even poking fun at his own legend. “In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer. I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence… It is forty years since I hung up my cloak and dagger. I wrote my first three books while I was a spook. I wrote the next eighteen after I was at large.” The point is, nearly every major star through the last five decades has signed on to a le Carré project because they are so well-crafted. From Sir Alec Guinness, Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, to more recent entries such as Tom Hiddleston, the public has definite opinions.
The usual favorite TV adaptation is, Hiddleston in BBC’s recent “The Night Manager” mini-series (from the 1993 book) notwithstanding, Guinness in 1986’s “The Perfect Spy.” The best movie is usually pegged as Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, based on le Carré’s third novel published in 1963. Laborious lists have been made of Top 10’s. There’s the Karla Trilogy, Russia House, Panama Tailor, Little Drummer Girl — the point is, the bar is quite high. So British Director Susanna White’s just released le Carré entry, Our Kind of Traitor, from the 2010 novel of the same name, looks to have some stiff competition as a new addition into the record books. Or does it?
Starring Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, and Naomie Harris, Our Kind of Traitor remarkably has nothing to fear from the past, because this film will be remembered as The Movie That Came in From The Cold. What does that mean exactly? Cold, as in cold shoulder, for one. Look at the lighting in Oldman’s Tinker, Tailor. As a bleak and calculating reflection of its subject matter, this is a near-perfect le Carré example. Yet, as with nearly every single adapt, perhaps with the exception of 2005’s Constant Gardener which leans more toward the emotional, the archetypal classic take on John le Carré’s spy-craft deconstruction of “The Circus” (shorthand for MI6) is usually a stoic rendering with an intellectual view toward Deception and Betrayal, in capital letters. Deceit and eroding loyalty are the two mainstay themes of his work. Here’s where Our Kind of Traitor parts company.
Director Susanna White spins something entirely different into the fabric of espionage: layers of emotional complexity. This isn’t the hand-wringing kind of sentimental nonsense, it is the intricate emotional mining of subtext for our entirely human lead characters. Smug-free, the players in Our Kind of Traitor seem to understand exactly what the consequences are, and why the risks are worth it. White pre-loaded the odds of success here, not only with casting choices like the inexorable Harris and Damian Lewis, but with Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE (Ryan Gosling) screenwriter Hossein Amini, a great choice. Her previous projects include HBO’s “Generation Kill” series, where she directed Stellan’s son Alexander Skarsgård, yes of Tarzan fame, and she had previously worked with Ewan McGregor.
An interview with Susanna White follows, but for now, here’s a snapshot of the plot, courtesy of our friends at Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, the film’s distributors. You’re welcome to use your best Announcer Voice while you read this… “While on holiday in Marrakech, an ordinary English couple, Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris), befriend a flamboyant and charismatic Russian, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who unbeknownst to them is a kingpin money launderer for the Russian mafia. When Dima asks for their help to deliver classified information to the British Secret Services, Perry and Gail get caught in a dangerous world of international espionage and dirty politics. The couple is propelled on a perilous journey through Paris and Bern, a safe house in the French Alps, to the murky corners of the City of London and an alliance with the British Government via a ruthless and determined MI6 agent (Damian Lewis).”
Q: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is Brexit, since it just happened. How do you feel about it?
Deep despair, deep despair. It’s a terrible dark business for Britain. Most of my friends have been in deep shock.
Q: How do you think it will effect the film industry for the UK?
Its hard to know yet. At the moment an immediate impact is on the Pound against the US dollar. In terms of being a filmmaker in Britain, of course I’m here (in Los Angeles) now, there may be certain EU grants we are eligible for, that we won’t be eligible for (post-Brexit). People are doing a lot of analysis now — there were big email round-robins sent from the producers association urging people to stay in the EU. I just don’ t know. I think we won’t know for a while.
Q: Since you directed Emma Thompson in Nanny McPhee Returns (2010), is Our Kind of Traitor a departure for you?
It’s a big change. To go from a four-quadrant family film to a different kind of film. But in the context of me having done a lot of TV more similar to Our Kind of Traitor, Generation Kill and more adult drama, you could say Nanny McPhee was the departure. So it’s obviously very, very different, something that is a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. But they have Ewan McGregor in common. He was in Nanny McPhee Returns (as Mr. Green), which means they have a great cast in common.
My work as a director has been very varied. In some ways (this film) is muscles I’ve used before — I’ve done CGI and fight sequences. What was new was to make sure a suspense was working the movie.
Q: Were you a le Carré fan?
I’ve been a big fan since Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From The Cold. One of my favorites is The Constant Gardener. That brought an emotional side which is not usually associated with le Carré. But I had to be true to my own voice as a filmmaker. That’s why I open the movie with the dancer to make it feel very emotional at its heart. (The movement) makes it feel very contemporary, different than dark interiors.
Q: Where was it shot?
It was set it on a big landscape, Finland, Russia, France, Switzerland, UK and Morocco.
Q: There are parallel relationships in it, which is unusual.
There’s Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomie Harris); Perry and Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Hector, Damian Lewis, is part of two marriages in the movie. Damian’s failed marriage has made him very lonely and warring with the system and the British establishment. Those are the emotional layers — maybe as a woman, it is looking at the consequences of violence. When somebody dies you really feel it in the movie. This will bring an audience which isn’t the traditional le Carré audience, perhaps it’s more accessible.
Q: It has a conscience, you mean?
Right, exactly. Thats what I set out to do. Make the movie that was inside of me.
Q: Did you always have Ewan in mind, because he has that strange sense of inner conflict usually?
He was the only choice. Ewan has that boy-next-door quality. (In the movie) his pride is slightly dented. His career hasn’t taken him to the place he has wanted. His wife is a successful lawyer in training. It’s a modern relationship, and I wanted to show how lost he is at the beginning of the movie — then there’s this unlikely relationship with Dima.
Q: Did you see Eastern Promises (2007) for background on the Vor? How did you research it?
(Laughs) I did look at Easten Promises. It is a movie with very clear tattoos — I am working with that writer Steve Knight on my next movie — we wanted to make sure we got those right. But mostly I thought ‘how am I going to do my version?’ This isn’t American Italian (read: The Godfather), this is completely different. We did quite a lot of research on the Vor v Zakone (def: “Thieves in Law” Russian mafia). We worked with someone who had been to Russia, and met someone on whom he modeled (Stellan’s) character. I also talked a lot with Frederico Varese (author of “Mafias on the Move: How Oragnized Crime Conquers New Territories”), on hand to advise as well. Also Stellan and I went on an adventure of our own. It was very important to both of us, (to explore his character) so he wasn’t just black-and-white, that we understood the circumstances in his life.
Q: Stellan Skarsgård is so good at inhabiting a role, so how was he to work with?
It was a complete joy working with Stellan. I’ve been a massive fan since Breaking The Waves (1996).
Q: He’s usually complex and sensitive, also (cruel) funny but humorous too —
Hopefully it makes the audience think about it, that (opening sequence) dancer suspended in the air. I hope it makes you think about masculinity a lot, (what it says) about being a man. A rediscovery of what it means to be a man.
Q: Can you name five female directors you admire?
Oh, lots. Jane Campion is the person who really inspires me, with The Piano. Kathryn Bigelow, for sure. Amma Asante (A Way of Life), breaking through in the way that she has. Then there’s probably a few other British directors who I am very connected with, Sarah Gavron (Suffragette, 2015). And a woman you will see her first film this summer — she is my generation, who hasn’t had a chance to make a film yet — Philippa Lowthorpe.
Q: The reason I asked you that question is because there was a time when it was nearly impossible to name five.
It’s getting better and it’s improving slowly.
Q: What’s your next project?
I’m working with writer Steve Knight (Eastern Promises). It’s based on a true story of a woman who is portrait painter in the 1880’s and had a relationship with Sitting Bull.
Q: Have you cast the female lead?
Q: She’s perfect for that role. Also, I really enjoyed Our Kind of Traitor, as an adult movie with those emotional elements you don’t see very often.
I’m happy you like the film. I think this the whole thing about bringing emotional layers that makes it different.
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released OUR KIND OF TRAITOR in theaters beginning July 1, 2016.
Directed by Susanna White, and written by Hossein Amini (screenplay), from the John le Carré (novel), the film stars Ewan McGregor, Naomie Harris, Damian Lewis and Stellan Skarsgård. To find out how to see it, click here or look for local showtimes.
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