Watching a John le Carré story unfold on screen is like slipping into the standard-issue overcoat of an elegant, mildly depressive spymaster: The collar is popped (to ward off fog and espionage), the pockets are full (of secrets!), and it comes, of course, in only one shade (morally ambiguous gray).
His latest cinematic adaptation opens in sleek, very le Carré style—opulent European setting, possibly sketchy exchange of goods, cold-blooded assassination in the snow—before cutting to Marrakech, where a shaggy poetry professor named Perry (Ewan McGregor) and his carefully composed wife, Gail (Naomie Harris), are straining to reconnect. Their attempt at a romantic dinner falls flat, but when Gail is called away for work, a neighboring table of rowdy Russians invite Perry to join them. Soon Perry has a new best friend in the bighearted, flamboyantly tattooed Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Dima, it turns out, is a numbers guy, but he’s not on call at H&R Block; he launders billions for the black market, and he’s desperate to extricate himself before his family becomes the target of a murderous new boss. That’s where the British secret service—and a trustworthy go-between like Perry—come in.
Immersing an ordinary citizen in the criminal underworld and then turning up the heat is a timeworn trick, and Traitor doesn’t do anything particularly new with it. The film, while gorgeously shot, is schematic and wholly implausible. But Skarsgård saves it; wild and funny and ferociously alive, he’s a crucial bolt of color in all that tasteful gray.
The article originally appeared on Entertainment Weekly