A Most Wanted ManAugust 9, 2014
Like many contemporary directors, Anton Corbijn made his reputation with rock video clips, but where filmmakers such as Michel Gondry have carried the gimmicky style of the video clip into their features, Corbijn has taken the opposite approach. His movies are lean and understated, distinguished by psychological tension rather than spectacle. There have been only three so far: Control (2007), a bio pic of rock star maudit, Ian Curtis; The American (2010), a taut drama about a hitman on his final assignment; and now, A Most Wanted Man.
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call the film an espionage thriller – it is more of a slow boiler where the tension is kept simmering from beginning to end. It is a movie with two outstanding drawcards, being based on a 2008 novel by the acknowledged master of the espionage genre, John Le Carré; and featuring the final screen appearance of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Now in his 80s, Le Carré’s writing seems to be getting livelier with age, although his subject matter remains dark and conspiratorial. It is a style that often seems made for the cinema, with A Most Wanted Man being the latest in a long line of adaptations. Next year will see the release of a film based the novel, Our Kind of Traitor (2010).
As for Hoffman, he is masterful in the role of Günther Bachmann, an aging German intelligence officer who has been recalled to run a secret department in Berlin after his Beirut operation was blown. Günther drinks and smokes too much, while the only company in his shabby apartment is a piano. He is world-weary and cynical, yet his idealism may be glimpsed through the cracks in a battle-hardened persona – a classic Le Carré character given a most persuasive interpretation, even allowing for the fact that everyone has to speak English with a German accent. It can’t have been hard for experienced German actors such as Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl, who play Günther’s operatives, but others such as Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams don’t make much of an attempt.
Hoffman’s accent is so strange it barely sounds German, but is somehow more convincing because it eschews the ‘Sergeant Schultz’ tones. When it comes to looking tired, unhealthy and charged with underlying tensions, Hoffman may not have been acting at all.
The story concerns a Chechan refugee named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), supected of terrorist involvment, who has smuggled himself into Hamburg. The security forces want to move in fast, but Günther keeps them at bay as he has other plans for Karpov – a devoted Muslim with a Russian-speaking background and mixed Russian-Chechan parentage.
Günther not only wants to know more about this deeply conflicted man, he believes he may be a useful tool for cracking open a network of jihadists. The plot is played out like a chess game, with the major pieces being Dafoe, as the banker, Tommy Brue; and McAdams as Annabel Richter, a crusading young immigration lawyer. It’s an unusually straight role for Dafoe, who seems to spend most of his time playing crazies; and a serious one for McAdams, whose CV to this point is mainly trash.
While Günther is laying his traps he is being pressured by German security, and by the Americans, who have other ideas about how Karpov should be handled. Having been given a deadline he is working against time to fit all the pieces in place.
Hoffman’s challenge was to play a character who is in many ways masterful, but struggling always to establish his credibility. Günther is a man of superior intelligence and heightened sensitivity, with the habits of a slob. He inspires loyalty in his sub-ordinates, but scepticism in his peers. He is Le Carré’s portrait of an expert spy who achieves his goals though strategy and guile, as opposed to the strongarm tactics favoured by the C.I.A. Central to Günther’s ethos is the belief there is a fundamental core of decency in all human beings that may be tapped and activated. This is at variance with his everyday image, where he must appear as a tough guy.
As usual with Le Carré’s stories, the characters are cagey with one another. Everyone has a role to play, whether willingly, unknowingly, or under coercion. The pawns are being observed or bugged, the spymasters labouring under a burden of mistrust. Günther has learned through experience that his colleagues in this game can be his worst enemies. By the end of the story we have tracked through the maze at his side, developing a quiet but insistent sense of paranoia about those people who are working to make the world a safer place.
A Most Wanted Man
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Screenplay by Andrew Bovell, from a novel by John Le Carré
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Homayoun Ershadi, Robin Wright
UK/USA/Germany, rated M, 122 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 9th August, 2014.