Our Kind Of Traitor captures a very British fascination with espionage, international double-dealing and Britain’s place in the world.
From the writer of Drive (Hossein Amini) adapting the hit John le Carré novel – the mind behind Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and directed by acclaimed Susanna White – the taut thriller Our Kind Of Traitor twists and turns its way around the world with dramatic consequences.
“One of the strengths of John le Carré’s work is that he incorporates very important themes into a rollercoaster ride of a thriller,” says screenwriter Hossein Amini of le Carré’s novel Our Kind Of Traitor, which he has adapted into a major new feature film of the same name.
“The audience is thrown into the shoes of an innocent couple and there are dangers lurking around every corner,” Amini explains. “But along the way le Carré is also saying a lot about the world in the years post the global economic crash of 2008, and about the influence of Russia and Europe on Britain. He personalises the story through the characters we meet along the way.”
Our Kind Of Traitor is produced by Gail Egan of Potboiler Productions, with Simon Cornwell and Stephen Cornwell of The Ink Factory. The two companies recently collaborated on another le Carré adaptation, A Most Wanted Man.
“We were lucky enough to read the book prior to publication,” says Egan. “It was obvious straight away. It’s a great book. It’s a great story and it has great characters. It is very cinematic.”
“It was a very strong, very relatable story,” says producer Simon Cornwell, who is also le Carré’s son.
“An everyman and an everywoman couple caught in a world that overwhelms them and charts their journey through that. It was a very natural to take to the screen.”
Set in London, Marrakech, Paris, Bern and the French Alps, director Susanna White, whose breadth of work ranges from Working Title’s Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang to HBO’s hard-hitting Generation Kill (about the US invasion of Iraq) to BBC period dramas such as the BAFTA winning Bleak House, Parade’s End and Jane Eyre, was drawn to the very cinematic aspect of the story, as well as its very contemporary themes. White is one of the few women in the world directing films on this scale.
“What made this stand out for me was that it is a very modern story,” she explains. “I have grown up with le Carré and most of his other stories have looked backwards into the past and been set in a world of darkish interiors. Our Kind Of Traitor is a big road movie, travelling across five countries. “It is a le Carré for now,” she continues. “People in MI6 might now be working counterterrorism. I deliberately cast Khalid Abdalla, a Middle Eastern actor, to play Luke, because that is the MI6 we’ve got now. I hope it will make people think about the world that we live in.”
Damian Lewis, who plays British MI6 agent Hector Meredith, explains it is as much a character piece as it is a suspenseful thriller. “It’s not a ‘who done it’, it’s more of a ‘can they do it?’”
Adapting the novel for the screen
Hossein Amini is one of the UK’s most accomplished screenwriters, with credits including The Wings of a Dove, Drive, and an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January, which also marked his feature film debut as a director.
A natural choice to adapt Our Kind Of Traitor, he was fortunate to be slipped a copy of le Carré’s as-yet-unpublished manuscript by the agent he shares with le Carré (real name – David Cornwell).
“I loved it from the moment I read it,” declares Amini. “I quickly phoned and said ‘I really desperately want to do this’. I then had to meet David Cornwell to discuss how to do it and he very generously said ‘yes I would love you to do it’.”
Amini worked closely with le Carré on the first couple of drafts.
“I would write and he’d give me notes,” says Amini of their collaboration. ‘“John le Carré had always been a big hero of mine so it was a fantastic opportunity to work with him. It was like meeting a man with an extraordinary brain. I learnt so much from those two or three days I sat down with him. It was the highlight of my screenwriting career to exchange ideas and work on the script with him and to talk about ideas. It’s fantastic when a person lives up to your expectations.”
“As a screenwriter you need collaborators to get the script in the right place,” says Amini. “Everyone works differently and has different approaches but I got a lot out of working with all them.”
Le Carré’s characters have long been engrained in the public imagination as the crumpled, cynical counterparts to the polished dash of James Bond. For the filmmakers, the job at hand was to craft a feature to fit into the le Carré canon and also to stand out within it.
“There are a lot of expectations about making a le Carré film,” says White. “People imagine it as people meeting in alleyways, lots of dark interiors, usually a grey- brown world of the past. Part of my challenge as director was to bring something new to it in exploring the areas I wanted to explore. But also to make the le Carré fans not feel cheated and to feel they were getting something that would honour a very specific piece of literature.”
Le Carré’s novels always drill with piercing acuity into the global issues of the day: the pharmaceutical industry in The Constant Gardener; the war on terror in A Most Wanted Man; in Our Kind Of Traitor it is private finance and the impact of Russia – specifically Russian money – on the entire spectrum of British society, from finance to politics to the streets of London, which comes under scrutiny.
“One of the themes of le Carré’s work is that Britain has almost declined as a world power but we still have these British values that come from a time when Britain was on top of the world and had a moral responsibility,” Amini suggests.
“As that power has waned, that morality has turned into something far more like compromise. He is very interested in the impact of the decline of British power on a moral system. That’s what our film is about. There are those who are willing to anger the Russian authorities to help this man Dima escape, and there are those who are opposed to that and are probably working with the Russians, all within the British system.”
Our Kind Of Traitor deftly wraps these weighty issues inside universal imponderables including what it means to be a man in the 21st century. “Perry’s character is struggling to define who he is,” says White. “At the start of the movie he feels lost, his wife is much more successful than he is and his journey is one of redefining himself as a man, which he discovers on his journey with Dima. We have a couple in crisis needing to heal and repair their relationship.”
McGregor, who boasts an eclectic career with memorable roles in films including Moulin Rouge, the Star Wars franchise, and most famously as the heroin addict Renton in his break-out film Trainspotting, read the script before going to the book.
“Perry is more serious and quiet and withdrawn in the book and he’s been brought forward a little bit in the screenplay but he’s still quite a thoughtful, quiet character,” McGregor says. “Gail absolutely holds her own and it’s a very modern marriage in that respect, there’s nothing traditional about it and there’s no husband and wife roles. They’re both in this thing together and she gives as good as he does. You see the consequences of what they’re doing and how it affects both of them. It’s quite nice as it’s quite unusual.”
For Amini, McGregor is the perfect Perry, dressed in vintage-looking jeans, boots and leather jackets. “I love the idea of Ewan playing Perry, because as an actor what I’ve always admired in his work is that there’s an edge and a toughness but there’s also something incredibly vulnerable and innocent,” says the screenwriter. “
Perry is thrown into this world and copes with it pretty heroically but at same time is almost wide-eyed in his purity and his reaction to the moral compromises and the darkness in people he is witnessing.
“What’s great about Ewan is that he feels morally so solid,” Amini continues. “You really sense his outrage and his disappointment in people, but also the toughness and an edge that allows him also to be an action hero, and that’s required too. It’s that combination that makes him so ideal.”
Susanna White praises McGregor’s ability to engage with audiences. “He and I talked early on about the challenges of playing a real relationship of people whose marriage is in trouble,” she says.
“Part of the challenge was keeping audience appeal while seeing his weakness at the beginning of the film and his journey to rediscovering himself, who he is and redefining his relationship of with Gail. It was a very interesting journey with Ewan. He wasn’t afraid to play a character that was weak at the beginning of the film but who gains in strength. The other thing we were both keen on was the idea of a mixed race relationship,” says White.
“Again it was part of the idea I had to make le Carré feel very modern and very much a 21st century le Carré. You have this wonderful high achieving woman who happens to be black.”
“Interestingly, and this is why it’s such good writing, as the deal between Dima and MI6 becomes more chaotic, their relationship mends,” says McGreggor. “The two arcs of those storylines go hand in hand. Through it all Perry and Gail find each other again and remember what it is they love about each other. By the time the film ends they are in a much better place.”
“Our Kind Of Traitor is very expansive,” she says. “I liked the challenge of creating worlds that we don’t see and worlds that we don’t know. It’s very interesting to see how these societies work. What we’re seeing in this film is British high society, as well as inside the British government and banking. They are fascinating worlds to step into.”