I didn’t really warm to 2011’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, the last John le Carré adaptation to hit the big screen. A too star-laden cast self-consciously playing 1970’s dress up proved to be an irritating distraction and overpowered the intricate story, but thankfully that’s not the case with “A Most Wanted Man”. Starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final lead role, this is an absorbing story of espionage and global politics and a dispassionate examination of the international ‘War On Terror’.
When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee arrives in Hamburg illegally, he comes to the attention of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the leader of team focussed on developing intelligence assets within the Muslim community. When Karpov meets with an immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams) and a banker Thomas Brue (Willem DaFoe) who used to launder money for Issa’s father, Günther sees an opportunity to use them as a means of furthering his investigations into the activities of a local Muslim philanthropist who he suspects is funnelling funds to Al Qaeda.
Hoffman is superb here, reminding us of what we’ve lost and yet, despite the still-fresh poignancy of seeing him onscreen, absolutely disappearing into the role of crumpled, nondescript spymaster Bachmann. His accent is impeccably European, perhaps not quite as Teutonic as it could be but impressively consistent and eerily close to the gravelly timbre of Max Von Sydow. The role is a quiet and unassuming one for the most part but Hoffman imbues every utterance, movement and gesture with years of frustration, irritation, ennui and the steely determination of someone who is often the smartest man in the room but has grown used to being ignored or side-lined by less insightful and blinkered superiors. McAdams’ accent likewise impresses and it’s easy to forget these are American actors playing the roles, so well do they blend in with the likes of Daniel Brühl and Ranier Block.
Anton Corbijn’s direction is as economical as it is assured, showing a Hamburg that is made up of as many shades of grey as the moral ambiguities his characters trade in, shooting everything with a gritty lo-fi feel, underpinning the mundane trappings of the realpolitik of spycraft. There’s no Bondian glamour in this tale of slow, steady surveillance and precious little in the way of action and excitement. Instead, there’s authenticity in its subtle examination and dissection of the murkily nuanced world of intelligence gathering and the characters that inhabit it. It’s a real credit to the cast, led by the fantastic performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, that a movie which unfolds at such a slow burning pace should prove to be so thoroughly engrossing.
A classy, thoughtful and intelligent thriller, “A Most Wanted Man” is a triumph of performance and storytelling over the assumed need for pyrotechnics and bombastic action and an unwanted reminder of the talent that was lost when Hoffman died.