Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man has the distinction of being not only the first John Le Carré adaptation to reach our screens since Tomas Alfredson’s critically acclaimed Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy back in 2011, but also the last leading role of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away back in February.
The film itself, as it transpires, is a surprisingly delicate post-9/11 thriller, but will most likely be remembered for Hoffman’s impressive final performance.
Gunther Bachmann is a German spymaster effectively exiled to Hamburg following an unknown incident in Beirut; Hoffman occupies the role like it’s enemy territory. With his gravelly voice and versatile eyebrows, he brings a sense of inner life to Bachmann; a part that, in less capable hands, could merely have seemed brooding. Hoffman turns him into character easily capable of standing alongside George Smiley (both Oldman and Guinness).
A Most Wanted Man’s plot is simple but rife with the moral ambiguity that sets Le Carré’s apart from so many of his imitators. A Chechen immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) makes his way to Hamburg; not long after he arrives, he pops up on Bachmann’s radar as a possible terror suspect. Bachmann’s superiors want the interloper brought in, but Bachmann sees in him an opportunity to go after bigger fish, even if it means putting everything on the line.
In Bachmann’s world, however, this is the lesser of many evils. What he knows – and what well-meaning lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) is yet to discover – is that sometimes an act of betrayal can be a kindness. A bar dweller who spikes his coffee from a hip flask and plays Bach on his home piano, Bachmann is a deceptively complex creature whose job requires that he play many roles: friend, father, bully, protector, and manipulator.
Corbijn’s direction makes the most of the urban environment, drawing glimpses of beauty from unexpected places. Mostly though the harsh yellow light, the seedy shop fronts, the parking structures, are redolent of A Most Wanted Man’s genre. Dobrygin’s Issa Karpov is quietly damaged, a unfortunate would-be rich kid who has come to Hamburg to escape torture; it’s the way of Bachmann’s world, though, that even his suffering can be – must be – leveraged.
A Most Wanted Man is full of nice touches and neat performances – from Willem Dafoe’s cagey banker to Robin Wright’s friendly CIA spook – but it ultimately belongs to Hoffman. Blonde haired and big bellied, chain-smoking and trench-coated, his stability guides us through, right up until the film’s sudden and brutal climax.
An unostentatious master-class in working the material; as Hoffman wanders off into cinema history, we can be glad he left us with this final gem.