In British television director Susanna White’s Cold-War-rekindled thriller “Our Kind of Traitor,” Ewan McGregor plays a character named Perry Makepeace, whose moniker is only slightly more subtle than those of classic Bond girls Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole and Xenia Onatopp. A tweedy college professor roped into brokering the defection of Russia’s “No. 1 money launderer,” Makepeace would appear to be making good on his name, were this not the latest espionage thriller from cynic extraordinaire John le Carré, who might have done better to christen his unwitting protagonist Patsy McGullible.
Makepeace is vacationing with girlfriend Gail Perkins (Naomie Harris) in Marrakesh, when he takes the bait, accepting the invitation of boisterous Russian oligarch Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) to attend the sort of party where revelers dance among the fireworks and high-dollar prostitutes roam the halls on horseback. This is pretty much the lifestyle taxpayers figure Gerard Depardieu left France to enjoy, and though it might have been fun to see the “Marseilles” star chew the scenery in the role, Skarsgård’s turn as an overbearing, open-collared Russian stereotype proves to be the film’s strongest asset.
Still smarting from the sort of confidence-shattering indiscretion that serves to make their characters slightly less one-dimensional, the couple left London to rekindle the proverbial spark. By accepting Dima’s offer to hand-deliver a USB drive to British intelligence, the excitement-averse academic inadvertently ignites far more, thrusting them both into what sounds like a classic Hitchcock plot: Ill-equipped everyman is yanked from a life of comfortable obscurity to save the world and/or clear his name.
Perry figures he can turn the USB drive over at customs and be done with it, though it turns out British intelligence wasn’t what it once was. The dirty Russian money Dima has been laundering all these years seems to have found its way into some very prominent British pockets, and as such, semi-disillusioned MI6 agent Hector (played by “Homeland’s” shifty-looking Damian Lewis) must pursue his investigation with minimal manpower.
Actually, he’s so short-staffed — and yet so personally invested in bringing down a potentially corrupt rival — that Hector manages to convince Perry and Gail to put their own lives on the line in order to bring Dima in. And so “The Two Faces of January” writer-director Hossein Amini’s screenplay invites armchair espionage fans everywhere to imagine how they might navigate such a tricky negotiation, tapping into their sense of chivalry and/or patriotism, rather than that more urgent Hitchockian notion of misplaced guilt.
In order to convey the stakes, director White — who leans on d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle to strike the balance between seduction and danger — takes us into the inner circle of “The Prince” (Grigoriy Dobrygin), the ruthless Russian mobster who signs his enemies’ death sentence by presenting them with a cherished pistol, only to have his goons collect it from their cold dead hands hours later. White depicts one such execution on a lonely stretch of icy road, and the disturbing image of an entire family killed in cold blood haunts us as it does Dima. Outward flamboyance aside, he’s a committed family man, which is perhaps the quality that convinces Perry (clearly atoning for his own shortcomings in that department) to stick his neck out for the near-stranger — that and the free trip to Paris he and Gail get out of it.
At Horace’s urging, the couple hops the Channel for a second romantic getaway, this time playing cloak and dagger with Dima right under the noses of the men who intend to kill him — including the dreamy, blue-eyed Russian (Pawel Szajda) who’d dispatched the aforementioned family. Perry and Gail are completely out of their depth in these scenes, and White milks their naïveté (and ours) by putting them in situations that could presumably turn fatal at any moment, including a detour by retro-futuristic housing projects the Tours Aillaud, where a tea break turns tense in an otherwise dead-end scene.
Perry Makepeace may be virtually incapable of making violence, but Dima has no such impediment, and things heat up when the Russian starts to feel cornered. So many of Skarsgård’s past performances rely on his intellect that it’s a rare pleasure to see him slip into such a physical role, whether he’s puffing his chest to show off Russian prison tattoos or strangling one of the Prince’s thugs with his bare hands.
By contrast, McGregor is arguably too physical for his role, which (as when he was cast as an uptight fisheries expert in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”) really ought to have gone to a stuffier and far less handsome actor. But audiences come to movies like this — a sort of latter-day “Charade,” minus the mistakes of its less charming remake, “The Truth About Charlie” — fully expecting to enjoy the scenery. To that extent, photogenic co-stars McGregor and Harris are as indispensable to the equation as the film’s exotic exteriors, which range from the skylines of Paris and London to the Swiss Alps.
Despite the real-world bombshell of the recent Panama Papers scandal, Dima’s secrets are too juicy for the general public to digest, and this is where le Carré’s trademark skepticism distinguishes the web he weaves from that of any less venomous spider. Still, the shattering of one’s noble ideals is a delicate thing to capture on film, and White plays the moment of rupture with a banality that threatens to undermine our faith in her as storyteller more than in the system itself. If Makepeace was meant to be our kind of hero, it’s a shame to see him made out to be such a sucker.