Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Daniel Bruhl
Those who are prone to cynicism would be forgiven if they thought the trailer for A Most Wanted Man felt exploitative. For despite playing a more minor role in John le Carré’s contemporary spy novel, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Günther Bachmann rarely appeared off of the screen during the film’s 2-minute preview; almost as if the promotions team were using Hoffman’s posthumous performance as a marketing tool. Such feelings, however, are unfounded. Shifting the focus on to the spooks that lurk in the shadows of Carré’s prose, Anton Corbijn’s superb spy drama acts as a perfect testament to Hoffman’s extraordinary acting abilities.
As anyone familiar with le Carré’s stories will know, the world of intelligence services he inhabits is one far removed from the glitz and glam of 007. Imbued with an incessant darkness and inhabited by ghouls who skulk in the gloom, this is a world built on secrets, not sensationalism.
It’s quite apt that we open on the grimy surface of the River Elba, as it is in to the murky waters of international espionage that we are quickly plunged. Within this world of terror and treachery, Günther Bachmann moves quietly. His current target Issa is a Chechen Muslim, who has entered Hamburg illegally and alerted the attentions of anti-terror authorities. With Bachmann and his team trying to ascertain Issa’s true reasons for arriving in Hamburg, the Americans soon begin to also take interest in proceedings and pressure soon mounts on all those involved.
Screenwriter Andrew Bovell weaves his story methodically; dropping the audience headfirst in to le Carré’s realm of riddles and only rarely letting them come up for air. The narrative may not contain the same high levels of complication found in Tinker, Tailor, but it is equally as taut. Bovell intelligently trims away all of the plot’s excess fat, allowing for a tightly woven pace that builds the tension nicely. A quality further enhanced by the urgency of Benoît Delhomme’s handheld camerawork and the constant brooding of Herbert Grönemeyer’s score.
In to this milieu, Hoffman fits perfectly. With his dishevelled appearance, sun-starved complexion, and habitual chain smoking, the actor cuts the figure of a man married to his work. And while that is true in the strictest sense, the genius of his meticulously multi-layered performance is how he ensures Bachmann’s personality doesn’t adhere to such convention.
Hoffman paints Bachmann as a calm and collected professional on the surface, instilled with loyalty and enriched with a dry wit and cheeky charm that’s exuded through his silky German accent. Yet underneath he is as deceitful as those he hunts, using emotive tactics as a way of convincing others to put themselves in harms way. Hoffman plays these scenes with an understated command that belies his consoling nature, subtly forcing the audience to wonder who they can trust, when even those who fight for good are consumed by lies.
These questions on the nature of trust are what lie at the heart of Corbijn’s film. The War on Terror has long been a subject earmarked by filmmakers for analysis, and here the director examines the reality of this unending battle through the characters that lie at the core of his film. The terror of those unwittingly embroiled in the conflict is expressed most affectingly through Grigoriy Dobrygin’s Issa and Rachel McAdams as his lawyer Annabel, while the genuineness of interagency relationships is scrutinized through the hushed conversations between Bachmann, his superiors and his American counterpart Martha – a coldly enigmatic Robin Wright.
The latter of these in particular feels terrifyingly true to life, as we watch the simmering rivalry between those who are on the same side eventually boil over at the expense of others. The final 5 minutes is perhaps one the most finely orchestrated gut punch twists of the year, a sudden and haunting moment of emotional realization. And at its heart, of course, is Hoffman, whose explosion from within powerfully underlines the sheer range of this exceptional performer. Though they may not be his most eloquent, the echoes of his final lines will ring through the corridors of cinemas for a long time to come.