To start with, Our Kind of Traitor is based on perhaps the least-interesting of John le Carré's novels that have so far been turned into a movie or TV miniseries or both, so it's perfectly natural that it should be the least-interesting movie of the recent le Carré fad (which I'm only really using to mean 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 2014's A Most Wanted Man, and the 2016 miniseries The Night Manager, though in theory I bet you could stretch far enough to call 2005's The Constant Gardener part of the same crew). This is not the same as calling it bad - it is a perfectly fine version of itself, with very few if any elements that I could point to as say, "there, that's one of the mistakes they made". Possibly a few details that become unnecessarily obscured in Hossein Amini's screenplay, leading to a plot that's slightly more harried and hard to follow than it quite has to be; the book's certainly not as thick and murky as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and that film's makers did a decent enough job turning it into something comprehensible.

For the most part, Our Kind of Traitor is as straightforward as a proper spy thriller (as opposed to a Bondian action film with spies) could probably manage to be: Perry Makepiece (Ewan McGregor), an English tourist in Marrakech, is in the wrong place at the right time, and is strong-armed into accepting an invitation to spend the night drinking with an enormously robust and inveigling Russian, Dima Krasnov (Stellan Skarsgård). As it turns out, Dima's not just a joyful, life-affirming Zorba the Greek figure, there to save Perry from his one-man pity party over a strained marriage; he's also the primary financial controller for an old-school sect within the Russian mafia, and recent changes in the hierarchy of that organisation have convinced him that it's time to flee the country with his wife and children. Perry and his wife Gail (Naomie Harris) end up acting as the unexpected go-betweens for Dima's dealings with MI6, in the form of an agent named Hector (Damian Lewis), who is looking to use Dima's information about corrupt business dealings in Great Britain. As the negotiations stall out and Hector manages only to shuffle Dima and his family around Europe, never quite figuring out the path to bring them safely into the UK, Perry and Gail go from unwitting participants in a spy game neither of them can fully comprehend to feeling actively rejuvenated and passionate about their role in possibly, hopefully making the world a little bit better, or at the very least doing something good for this one family.

It's an engagingly told story that hits pretty much all of the beats one would anticipate from these dour realpolitik spy thrillers. Susanna White, a distinguished TV director making only her second feature film, keeps the heat turned up to an appropriate level to push all of this through in 108 rather unyielding minutes, cranking out an impressive number of narrow escapes in an impressive assortment of locations. The best of these is a tense chase ending in an eruption of violence in a kitchen, stitched together from a number of lithe tracking shots interspersed with short, punchy cutaways; but there's a rather nifty nighttime sequence in which a safe house is assaulted where all of the action is implied by distant sound effects in the dark, which is almost as good. As far as le Carré-style narratives about the hopeless corruption of modern Europe and the toxic cynicism of those in a position to help fight it, this is hobbled by a book where the author seemed unusually beholden to his formula, so there's no hope for the same kind of gut-churning insights that made A Most Wanted Man such pip; Perry and Gail's dawning moral sense - it is important to do this, therefore it must be done regardless of how hard it is - is handled reasonably well, but the film is a bit too focused on the machinery of its spy thrills to really dig into that, and McGregor is too curiously noncommittal to drag it out.

I wouldn't say he's "bad", any more than the movie is; I wouldn't say it of anybody. It's a handsomely-cast affair, with a lot of talent going on, though not always to great ends: Harris is terrific in a part that cannot possibly have given her much of a challenge, for one. Lewis is as good as I've seen him, allowing sincerity to glide through his bureaucratic unctuousness, but he maybe even had less of a challenge: Hector is probably the most completely-realised figure in Amini's screenplay, which isn't great considering that he's only the fourth-most important character. McGregor is simply there, which is a huge disappointment, given how infrequently he gets starring roles anymore; he's gone too far to the extreme of playing an unexceptional everyman, though, and never turns it around to start particularising Perry. The one standout in the cast, by a lot, is Skarsgård, possibly for dubious reasons: he plays Dima as a gigantic, melodramatic figure, whipping out some crazy-ass accent that's somewhere between Russian, the actor's native Swedish, and a Hollywood cartoon Nazi. There's little to none of the high-strung realism of the rest of the project in his performance, but that's exactly why he turns out to be so memorable. It's a big, sloppy, enthusiastic performance of a big, sloppy, enthusiastic man, and it's probably what gives Our Kind of Traitor most of its life and personality: he's a vitalising force who makes the movie weirder, which is not the same necessarily as better or more powerful, but he's probably the difference between Our Kind of Traitor being a well-appointed, effective, and thoroughly forgettable affair, and being something is maybe, yeah, probably worth seeing.

Certainly, there's not much else about the film that really leaps out. It's tasteful and a little too polished to be entirely fun. There's some particularly Anthony Dod Mantle-ish cinematography, in which he sprays quite a lot mist on the lens, only to make it glow with colored lights set like gems against the night sky, and quite a few moments where interiors seem to hum with an unexpected glow - a scene in a French spa has a cool teal hue that starts to saturate all of the walls of the place. I'm probably making it sound great, and it's surely pretty, but there's a very strong feeling of distaff Danny Boyle flair in the way he's shooting it, and I can't swear that it actually works, not for the chilly officiousness of Amini's script, not for the restrained professionalism of White's direction.

All that being true, I liked Our Kind of Traitor more than I think I'm letting on. It has distinct, pervasive strengths; only, they are strengths common to many classy spy thrillers, and so the best we can say is that the film provides nothing particularly fresh, but provides it well. For something with such downbeat notions about politics and the economy, it's odd to call this "comfort food", but that's basically what we've got here: a film that does exactly what you expect in almost exactly the way you expect it, Skarsgård notwithstanding. As someone who likes this breed of spy movie, I'm not complaining, but I'm not sure that there's any circumstance under which this would be the first le Carré adaptation I'd reach for when the mood struck me.