Directed by Susanna White
Written by Hossein Amini, based on the book by John le Carre
108 minutes, rated MA 15+

With great achievement comes great expectation. The books of David Cornwell, writing as John le Carre, have been exciting film-makers since before The Spy Who Came in From the Cold came out in 1965 – the first film adaptation of his work.

Our Kind of Traitor, published in 2010, is his 22nd novel and the tenth feature film based on his work. There are also five TV series, starting with the exemplary seven-part BBC adaptation from 1979 of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Alex Guinness as George Smiley. 

The attraction for film-makers is not just his rich stories. It is his exploration of  modern morality through character.  A film of a le Carre book promises two things, whatever the territory – a protagonist caught in a dirty business, troubled by the question of what is right, and a sense that evil does exist and is worth resisting. It is never beaten, only forestalled, sometimes not even that. That’s le Carre’s great achievement – a modern redefinition of the inferno, where the devils are recognisably human – be they ruthless spymasters like Karla from the Cold War or British bankers and corporations authorising murder in The Constant Gardener.

The films are not all great, but we expect a lot from them, especially since Tomas Alfredson’s marvelous revision of Tinker Tailor… four years ago. That may be why Our Kind of Traitor disappoints, even though it’s a respectable effort. Veteran British TV director Susanna White gives us an elegant political thriller with a strong cast, but without the depth that flows from serious moral inquiry.

Casting Ewan McGregor as Peregrine (Perry) Makepiece, a young teacher of English literature, might account for some of that deficiency. In the book, he has just turned 30 and is looking for a life beyond the Fellowship he has been offered at a prestigious Oxford College. On a tennis holiday in Antigua with his girlfriend Gail, a young barrister, he meets Russian mobster Dima, a larger than life figure who asks him to take a message to British intelligence. Dima is ‘the world’s best money launderer’. He fears his days are numbered since the appointment of a new boss of the Russian mafia. ‘The Prince’ has already had one of his friends killed, including his children. Dima wants safe passage for his family. In return, he will spill the beans on western politicians the Russians have bought and paid for – including some in Britain.

In the movie, the holiday takes place in Morocco. Dima invites Perry to drink expensive booze after Gail (Naomie Harris) has stormed off. The innocent young Brits later attend a ‘small party’ for Dima’s daughter’s birthday, complete with jewel-encrusted camels and enough fireworks to mobilise NATO.

McGregor’s Perry does not seem the literary type. He’s attracted by the Russians’ vulgarity, the killer tattoos, the money. Back in Blighty, an intelligence officer named Hector (Damian Lewis) drags them back into the intrigue. Dima insists they are present when Hector meets Dima in Paris to discuss terms.

A ‘wrong man’ story, as Hitchcock would have said, never gets old, but Perry isn’t quite that. He is drawn to the excitement of all this, to the point of endangering not just his own life but that of his girlfriend.  That is his sin. Another actor might have made this more troubling, but McGregor barely displays any moral temperature. He’s a little too like the shell of a man. If we don’t see his deeper feelings – which should mean a concern beyond his own self-preservation – we have nothing to ponder as he is drawn into the violence. The film then becomes just like every other American-made thriller, and less than some of the better ones going around since the rebirth of Jason Bourne.

Le Carre was writing about some nasty, and documented, connections between filthy Russian money and politics in Britain. Like much of his recent work, it is drawn from research, as much as imagination.  That sense of outrage does not transfer in Susanna White’s adaptation. Efficient directing doesn’t really matter if there’s no sense of indignation, no beating heart.