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By Daniel Lammin
30th July 2014

Acclaimed spy novelist John le Carre has always enjoyed a healthy relationship with adaptation, his carefully plotted thrillers offering rich material for the big screen. Following the spectacular ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ in 2011, a number of le Carre stories went into development, and the first to reach us is this handsome adaptation of his 2008 ‘A Most Wanted Man’, featuring a high-profile cast and crew. It also marks one of the final performances captured on screen of Philip Seymour Hoffman, upping the anticipation for the film. But with such impressive credentials, does the film stand up as the kind of arresting labyrinthine nail-biter we’d expect?

When young Chechen Muslim Isaa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) illegally immigrates to Hamburg, he catches the attention of Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his undercover team investigating terrorist cells in the city. Karpov’s background suggests he may have terrorist links, but rather than bring him in for questioning, Bachmann decides to watch him and see where the trail will lead him. With the help of young lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), Karpov makes a claim of inheritance from his father’s account at a major German bank run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), and Bachmann sees a chance to use Karpov to catch an even bigger fish.


‘A Most Wanted Man’ is a tale that firmly establishes itself in a post-9/11 world, where religion and heritage are enough to make someone a major terrorist suspect, and where governments sit with their fingers on the trigger ready to respond to the slightest movement. Adapted by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell, it’s a handsome and often arresting film, albeit at times quite a cold one. Bachmann and Karpov arguably share the role of protagonist, but the film never gives us much of a way in with Bachmann, an often abrasive and sullen man with very little back story supplied. Karpov is sketched more fully, but his is a character of few words, relying on the skill of the performance to make him a sympathetic presence in the film. Director Anton Corbijn continues to show the same skill and proficiency he demonstrated with ‘Control’ (2007) and ‘The American’ (2010), but like his previous work opts for an almost unrelentingly serious and heavy approach. There isn't much respite in ‘A Most Wanted Man’, whether that be in its serious tone or its consistently deliberate rhythm. That’s not to say the film isn't engaging; it keeps your interest from the beginning, and builds towards a satisfying and quite devastating finale, but once moments pass it’s hard to remember them. As a film, it doesn't have the tremendous energy or creativity of recent spy films like ‘Tinker Tailor’ or ‘State of Play’ (2009), so that even though as a technical exercise it hits all the right buttons, as an emotional one it leaves you feeling a tad cold and disengaged.

Philip Seymour Hoffman completely disappears into Bachmann, giving him a gravitas and a delicacy without which he wouldn't have nearly as fascinating.

That said, the performances are uniformly excellent. Philip Seymour Hoffman completely disappears into Bachmann, giving him a gravitas and a delicacy without which he wouldn't have nearly as fascinating. This isn't one of Hoffman’s most memorable performances, but perhaps that’s to the late actors credit. If Bachmann had been a more showy performance, it would have thrown out the balance of the film. This is Hoffman doing what he did best, becoming part of the DNA of the film rather than simply a performer in it. Dobrygin is also excellent, a quietly heartbreaking performance of a broken young man trying to reconcile with his past and carve a future for himself in a society that expects the worst from him. His chemistry with Rachel McAdams, who is also up to her usual high standard, is palpable and nuanced, even if Corbijn doesn't quite know what to do with it. Willem Dafoe is a most welcome presence in the film, if only because it’s so great to see him in more than a cameo role for a change. Also wonderful is Robin Wright as CIA agent Martha Sullivan, standing behind Bachmann in the shadows observing and assisting when necessary. Rather than being cold and imposing, she brings an unexpected warmth to the character which reaps surprising results.

If ‘A Most Wanted Man’ has a mountain to climb, it’s attempting to step out of the shadow of the untimely death of its leading man. Much of the interest in the film will probably be for this reason rather than as another screen adaptation from an acclaimed novelist. As a demonstration of Hoffman’s skills, it is a totally satisfying and moving experience. As a film on its own terms however, it doesn't quite hit its stride. Even with impressive performances and a well-written screenplay, it fails to engage the imagination or get the heart racing the way that it should, and even though it has many important things to say, it doesn't say them with the confidence it should. ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is definitely a film worth seeing, but probably not one that will stick in the memory.

RELEASE DATE: 31/07/2014
RUN TIME: 2h 2m
CAST: Robin Wright
Rachel McAdams
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Grigoriy Dobrygin
DIRECTOR: Anton Corbijn
WRITER: Andrew Bovell
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