Review: A Most Wanted Man (2014)

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Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenwriter: Andrew Bovell
Based on the novel of the same name by John le Carré
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Daniel Brühl, Rainer Bock & Homayoun Ershadi
Runtime: 122 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yuGlJ47s4M]

I don’t want to get all sentimental and cloying (even though I’m about to…) with regards to the recent death of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, but his passing really did hit me like a freight train. I tend not to let the deaths of people I don’t know personally affect me, but Hoffman’s performances were such a huge part of my early years as a film fan that I couldn’t help but feel a deep sadness when I heard the news that he was no longer with us. Then, months down the line, just as I was about to sit down to watch A Most Wanted Man – his last completed film – that same sadness returned, only this time it manifested itself as unease; an apprehension on my part that I was about to be terribly disappointed. I know that sounds selfish, but when your sole experience of someone is through their work – work that has always had a major impact on you – you feel an irrepressible desire to see them at their best, especially when they’re no longer with you.

Thankfully, my concerns were utterly unfounded, as A Most Wanted Man is quite simply excellent. Set in Hamburg, it deals with two distinct threats; Islamic terrorism on the one hand, and the misuse of extraordinary rendition on the other. Günther Bachmann (Hoffman; The Master) is a German spy who devotes his time to infiltrating the local Muslim community in the hopes of exposing Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Ershadi; The Pear Tree), a “community leader” who he believes is using supposed philanthropic ventures to fund terrorism and insurgency in the Middle East. The arrival of Issa Karpov (Dobrygin; How I Ended This Summer) – the “most wanted man” – into Hamburg grants Bachmann the opportunity to coerce Abdullah into the open and confirm his suspicions, but his plans are scuppered by the interference of both Annabel Richter (McAdams; Midnight in Paris), an immigration lawyer for the activist group “Sanctuary North”, working on behalf of Karpov, and Martha Sullivan (Wright; The Congress), an American diplomat who has taken a keen interest in the pursuit of both men.

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Like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, without doubt the most popular and well-known Carré work, A Most Wanted Man twists and turns its way, occasionally uncomfortably, through a procedural but labyrinthine plot that, while never hugely complicated in the way that the most recent adaptation of the aforementioned Tinker Tailor… had a tendency to be, is nigh-on impossible to second-guess. Crammed with red herrings, false turns and an assortment of characters that all seem as dishonest as each other, the film is intricately crafted yet never once feels contrived or bloated.

The primary reason for this is Bovell’s screenplay, which is a sharp, intelligent and highly disciplined piece of writing. Though the film is often played with the utmost seriousness, it comes fully-loaded with a dose of dry wit and some cutting social commentary which helps elevate it well above the status of a humble espionage thriller. There are times when the tone of the piece is perhaps a little too self-consciously cynical and dour, but when you consider it as a complete two-hour package it’s pitched just right. It’s depressive and pessimistic without ever being needlessly depressing, and it maintains a harshness and a pointed but detached realism, both in terms of character development and over-arching story, right up to its final scene.

For such a slow-burning film like this to really get under your skin, it needs two distinct things. Firstly, it needs a contemporary story that doesn’t alienate its audience, whether that be through trickery or unnecessary politicking. Secondly, and more importantly, it needs rich, complex characters to whom you can never quite relate (professional distance is essential not just for the characters but also for the audience watching them) but with whom you can empathise, at least to a certain degree. A Most Wanted Man has these in abundance, and though the mysterious, faceless “suits” that comprise the film’s secondary (or maybe primary, which is the point of the story) villains are a little grey and lifeless, such personalities suit the tone and the politics of the film perfectly.

It of course goes without saying that Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rock upon which A Most Wanted Man is built, and though his role as Günther Bachmann doesn’t even threaten to make it into a list of his top ten performances, it’s still a fiercely powerful turn and a devastating demonstration of the talent that we lost just a few months ago. Hoffman’s performance is haunted and haunting. He resembles, in a horrible reflection of reality, a man on the brink and a man with little left to lose or to live for. His performance is a masterclass in silent rage and reticent fragility, and one that is as unpredictable and frenetic as the story around which it is based. That he is supported so ably by Willem Dafoe (Wild at Heart) – who manages to be at once sinister and petrified in his role as Karpov’s banker – in particular, but also by Wright, Rachel McAdams and Dobrygin, just adds the final ingredient into this already intense and often rather morbid (in the best possible way) concoction.

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A number of people have criticised A Most Wanted Man for being boring. I just don’t see it. It’s cold and cynical, sure – perhaps even clinical – but, like a lot of Carré’s work, it is also furious, fierce and utterly gripping. With its dour aesthetic and its Cold War sensibilities (the enemy might have changed but the tactics remain the same), A Most Wanted Man feels at once like a throwback to the espionage thrillers of yesteryear and a modern procedural drama set against the vast backdrop of a frighteningly uncertain World. It is, in this respect, as much a study of Hoffman’s character as it is a thriller. There’s no need for lots of final act action sequences to justify the slow burning tension of the first ninety minutes for the simple reason that the characters provide the real intrigue at the heart of this story.

A Most Wanted Man is a thoughtful and startlingly contemporary film that exudes a stark resonance that lasts long after the credits have rolled. Corbijn’s (The American) direction is precise, sparing and restrained, the performances are – despite a few dodgy accents here or there – universally strong, and the story – in particular, its conclusion – packs a real gut punch. If you want to watch an old-school espionage thriller with a real edge, be sure to seek this modern classic out.

★★★★½

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