D: Anton Corbijn / 122m
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Robin Wright, Homayoun Ershadi, Daniel Brühl, Mehdi Dehbi, Rainer Bock
Chechnyan refugee Issa Karpov (Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg illegally. Spied on CCTV by the German intelligence network, Karpov is of particular interest to the team led by Günther Bachmann (Hoffman). With their specific focus on the Muslim community, Karpov’s appearance raises questions, especially as the Russians believe he could be an extremist bent on committing a terrorist attack. With another German intelligence agency led by Dieter Mohr (Bock) wanting to arrest Karpov immediately, Bachmann gains seventy-two hours in which to identify Karpov’s motives. At the same time, Bachmann is also looking into the financial dealings of local Muslim philanthropist Dr Abdullah (Ershadi), suspecting him of siphoning charity donations to terrorist organisations.
However, Karpov has come to claim an inheritance. He enlists the help of immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (McAdams), asking her to make contact with banker Tommy Brue (Dafoe). Karpov’s inheritance is held at Brue’s bank, and while Brue needs proof of Karpov’s identity and his claim, Bachmann recruits Brue as part of a plan that has wider implications than whether or not the Chechnyan is in Hamburg for suspicious reasons. With Brue on board, Bachmann begins to piece together more and more information relating to Karpov’s past and his reasons for being there. When Richter begins to feel she and Karpov are being watched she manages to get him to a safe house, but Bachmann abducts her, and persuades her to help him in getting Karpov’s money to him.
In the meantime, US diplomatic attache Martha Sullivan (Wright), ostensibly an observer, helps Bachmann with his investigation, and uses her position to keep Mohr off Bachmann’s back. With Brue and Richter both on board, Bachmann’s wider plan to entrap Dr Abdullah begins to come together. Karpov, unaware of what’s happening, or that he’s been under constant surveillance, is persuaded to sign over his inheritance. But when Abdullah presents a list of charities to receive funds from Karpov’s unwanted legacy, and it doesn’t contain the name of the charity that Bachmann and his team suspect is being used by Abdullah to divert monies to terrorists, it looks as if all their intelligence gathering and surveillance work has been for nothing.
A sharply detailed look at the behind the scenes work needed to apprehend or “turn” a terrorist suspect, A Most Wanted Man is a dour triumph that succeeds because Andrew Bovell’s measured and skilful adaptation of the novel by John le Carré takes its time introducing and maintaining the various subterfuges that pepper the narrative. This is an espionage thriller that eschews gunplay and car chases, and instead focuses on the mind games used in manipulating people into “keeping the world safe”.
A Most Wanted Man is an absorbing, slow burn movie that takes a somewhat familiar plot – does a person of interest have good or bad motives? – and thanks to a commanding central performance from Hoffman, Bovell’s polished script, and Corbijn’s exacting direction, is as sure-footed in its design and execution as any other le Carré adaptation (it does seem that the author’s works lend themselves well to being adapted for the screen). Holding it all together is another superb performance from Hoffman, his German accent making him sound completely different, and his somewhat slovenly appearance belying the intellect that keeps him several steps ahead of his quarry (and often, his team). This was Hoffman’s last lead role before his death, and as an unexpected swan song, shows once again why he was one of the finest actors of his generation. There’s not one moment where the artifice slips and the viewer becomes aware that they’re watching an actor – Hoffman inhabits the role so completely, it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they bumped into Günther Bachmann in real life.
Hoffman is ably supported by his co-stars, particularly McAdams who takes a largely conventional role and gives it a depth that is surprising for the character (but not for the actress). Dafoe is equally good as the compromised banker, Brue, and Hoss’ fatalistic second-in-command adds a layer of melancholy to the movie that reflects the sombre approach to the material. As the tortured, subdued refugee, Dobrygin is terrific in his English language debut, mournful and emotionally reticent, but with a deep-rooted sincerity that fits the character perfectly. But while the main cast all excel, spare a thought for Brühl, whose character is reduced to contributing the odd line and who stays firmly in the background.
With the political background given due relevance, and the inner workings of German intelligence – whether correctly detailed or not – explored in surprising detail, A Most Wanted Man remains a captivating, quietly meticulous thriller that benefits from an austere, gloomy production design by Sebastian Krawinkel that in turn is matched by Sabine Engelberg’s precisely detailed art direction. Keeping all these elements in tune, and creating a wholly believable milieu, Corbijn – whose previous feature The American (2010) was not as disciplined as his efforts here – makes it easy for the viewer to understand what’s going on at each twist and turn, and ratchets up the tension with a confidence that some more experienced directors never attain no matter how many movies they make. In the end, it all hinges on a signature, the kind of moment that few thrillers rely on, but here, Corbijn has the viewer on the edge of their seat and holding their breath. And then with victory assured, he and Le Carré pull off something so unexpected that the viewer’s breath is taken away altogether. It’s an audacious feat, and all the more impressive in the way it’s carried out.
Rating: 8/10 – with an eerily compelling score by Herbert Grönemeyer, the only negative that can be said about A Most Wanted Man is that, even with le Carré’s source material at its heart, some parts of the story and plotting are predictable; that said, it’s still a complex, engrossing thriller featuring effortless performances and is an intelligent, thought-provoking piece that rewards throughout.