18 September 2014


It doesn't feel like so long ago that Tomas Alfredson's take on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was garnering huge acclaim for its measured and deliberate pace. Anton Corbijn brings another, more contemporary John Le Carré spy novel to the screen in A Most Wanted Man, a film which is both like and unlike Alfredson's take.

The film is set not in the 1960s, but within the last decade or so, following a catastrophic oversight in catching the ringleader behind the September 11th attacks while he was planning from Hamburg. German intelligence is fraught with in-fighting and back-stabbery, and spymaster Gunther Bachmann is fed up with it. When a Chechen Muslim enters Germany to stake his claim on an enormous fortune, Bachmann must investigate the possibility that the money will be used to fund terrorist organisations, without succumbing to pressure from other departments, both in his own organisation and abroad.

It's never sporting to give away too many plot details about a film in the review, but here's a film about which even the previous paragraph feels like something of an over-elaboration. Anything more subtle than Alfredson's treatment of George Smile would have to be completely subliminal, but it dwells in the same implicit, shadowy territory with its treatment of espionage. The failures of the intelligence community on 9/11 is a mere primer next to the personal stakes for Bachmann and his unit, whereby some of the characters have regretful pasts and a significant unfortunate death toll behind them.

It's not like Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell ever need dialogue to state these regrets aloud. In Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Bachmann, they have a walking visual symbol of what's gone wrong. He refers to himself as a "cave-dweller" at one point and the implication is less primitive than it is ursine; he's a big wounded bear of a man, constantly putting either nicotine or caffeine into his system and trying to get on with a job that has obviously made him world-weary. There's no such thing as a bad Philip Seymour Hoffman performance, but even for him, this is exemplary.

Around halfway through the film, he has a terrific scene with Rachel McAdams, whose young immigration lawyer has to have her idealism broken before she can do any real good, in Bachmann's understanding of the world. His experienced approach is studied through encounters with Jamal, an informant that he has previously "made" his own, whose significance becomes clearer with each successive interjection in the main plot. He's trying to blot the mess of global politics rather than spread it around with gung-ho tactics and his relative benevolence could cost him dearly.

But such is the depth of the espionage in which he's embroiled, Bachmann is obstructed more often by his own side than by the forces he's investigating and that's where the measured narrative picks up a kind of suspenseful momentum. Rainer Bock's Mohr is his zealous opposite number in a more blunt, interrogation-happy department of German intelligence, and Robin Wright's CIA operative Sullivan is entirely unreadable for the vast majority of the film, taking an obvious shine to our woe-begotten hero but still breathing down his neck for results. Nobody on either side ever draws a gun, but the subtle antagonism often feels altogether more damaging than such openly hostile gestures.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy could be reasonably described as glacial, and while A Most Wanted Man is hardly a high-octane thriller, its similarity to the other recent Le Carré adaptation is most keenly felt in its chilliness. This is a film in which a gesture as small and tender as a reassuring hug between Bachmann and Jamal feels unseasonably warm and paranoia reigns at almost every other time in the movie. Corbijn lets it all build up slowly and then quickly escalates to a quietly devastating climax, all centred around Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose final leading role is yet another bittersweet reminder that we lost him at the understated peak of his power.

A Most Wanted Man is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen A Most Wanted Man, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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