Inevitably, A Most Wanted Man will be a film best known for featuring the last lead performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (although audiences will still get a chance to see him again in the next two Hunger Games films). Whilst this may seem unfair to a film that does have many other qualities, the fact that Hoffman dominates the publicity for it is no surprise. Even if he had not died very soon after the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, his total control of the screen whenever he is on camera (which is for most of the film) is undeniable, his bulk and talent proving, yet again, utterly magnetic and reminding the film world what it has lost. Doing more with tiny physical gestures than most actors can do with an entire monologue, this is absolutely Hoffman’s film, even if it is not quite his best.
He plays Gunther Bachmann, a German spy stationed in Hamburg, a city infamous for playing host to the cell that carried out the 9/11 attacks. A rich Chechen immigrant, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), has appeared in the city and every agency, from Bachmann’s spies to the Hamburg police and even the CIA wants him for their own. Based on John le Carre’s 2008 book, this is still an incredibly relevant story, encompassing as it does militant Islam, the paranoia of Western security forces and the unstoppable, sledgehammer approach of the Americans wreaking havoc with the hard work of foreign intelligence. Refreshingly, none of this is handled using broad strokes and the audience is invited to infer for themselves whether Issa is actually a jihadist or merely a refugee with a religious background. In fact, the only truly antagonistic force portrayed in the film is the rivalries between different agencies and nations who refuse to collaborate effectively, despite all having the same end goal.
This story unravels at a pace entirely its own, not relying on the typical technique of a constant raising of stakes in order to build tension but instead building an atmosphere of cold inevitability, much like 2011’s adaptation of le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (although it never quite immersed me as much as TTSS). The photographer’s eye of the director, Anton Corbijn, is unmistakable, choosing to be cold and dispassionate where most other directors would decide upon intimacy. It’s a technique that may alienate some, but I felt it to be entirely appropriate in telling the story of morally ambiguous and emotionally distant agents working in what is a rather charmless city.
Perhaps the riskiest move of the film was to have the majority of the cast actually played by Germans but leave the lead roles – Bachmann, Karpov’s humanitarian lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and private banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) – to be played by Americans using accents. This does actually work, which is a great testament to either the actors or their voice coaches and avoids the pitfall of it being an embarrassing distraction, as it was in The Book Thief.
The main problem A Most Wanted Man faces is that, in making a film about the frustratingly static world of real life espionage, you risk making the film itself, at points, frustratingly static and although the payoff at the end is riveting and shocking, there are lulls in the pace. The book avoided this by having three lead characters (Bachmann, Richter and Brue all had their own fleshed out plots), which the film has pared down to just one. This is not to say that by being a more faithful adaptation it would have been a better film (and some bits of the book do feel like filler), but that some punchier editing would have really elevated it into a more engrossing piece. Then again, this is absolutely Hoffman’s film, and if you’re going to see it for another towering performance by one of the industry’s finest ever actors, you will be very satisfied.
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Written by Andrew Bovell
Starring; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrykin, Rachel McAdams
Runtime; 122 mins