A Most Wanted Man: Sundance Review

A Most Wanted Man Still - H 2013

A Most Wanted Man Still - H 2013

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrait of a smart and seedy old German spy dominates this atmospheric and subdued John le Carre adaptation.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright star in Anton Corbijn's film version of John le Carre's 2008 best-seller.

The subtle cat-and-mouse espionage games and relative degrees of political and personal malignancy novelist John Le Carre has famously demarcated for more than a half-century are reasonably well represented in Anton Corbijn’s film version of the master’s 2008 best-seller A Most Wanted Man. Muted and subdued to what may prove to be diminishing returns commercially, this admirably textured thriller, rooted in Eastern immigrant-laden Hamburg, will prove absorbing to attentive audiences internationally who don’t need everything spelled out to them; more casual and mainstream viewers will likely tune out in mild befuddlement.

The vibrant colors and overt melodrama of the last adaptation of a recent Le Carre novel, The Constant Gardener, in 2005 give way here to the somber grays of Hamburg and Berlin, where the interests of various domestic and international parties in suspected or would-be terrorists are advanced in the manner of careful chess moves. The sort of quiet observational work Le Carre’s characters do, and the skilled, low-key style of acting that goes with it, has of late become more the province of long-form television than of big-screen cinema; real action and big set-pieces don’t play much of a role in this slow-burning drama featuring characters who keep their cards very close to their chests.

The story is dominated by the splendidly seedy Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a spy of the old school who, in the wake of 9/11, runs a small, low-profile intelligence unit dedicated to tracking Hamburg’s large Muslim community, in which the terrorists’s U.S. attack was plotted. Wary of old cohorts in Germany’s other spy organizations, Bachmann is a chain-smoking, Scotch-swilling, unhealthy-looking relic of the bad old days, but more colorful, experienced and probably smarter than the lot of them. Employing an often unemphatic voice and a fine German accent, Hoffman looks to relish this role but doesn’t showboat in an engaging performance that stands as the central point of interest in film set in a shades-of-gray world.

Spurring the intrigue here is the arrival of a bedraggled Chechen-Russian, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who purports to be the son of a former Russian military bigwig and, through human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), lays a claim to the contents of his late father’s account in a private German bank headed by Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe).

At the same time, Issa, a seemingly devout Muslim, is establishing contacts with a prominent local Muslim community leader, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), whose moderate credentials are deeply doubted by Bachmann, as they also are by local CIA operative Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright). Bachmann’s challenge is to get the goods on Abdullah through Issa and thereby expose a whole network of illicit terrorist funding being run out of Hamburg. But for this he needs time, and the constant threat is that his rivals in other agencies, along with the Americans, will prematurely move in to snatch both Abddullah and the possibly innocent Issa.

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Close attention is required to pick up all the nuances here, and there is much to be said for presenting such a carefully calibrated espionage tale in a more expansive format. For instance, there is the whole unexplored subtext of Bachmann’s relationship with his beautiful right-hand associate, Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), which may well be romantic as well as deeply admiring on both sides. And why cast an actor as interesting as Daniel Bruhl as another of Bachmann’s colleagues if you’re just going to show him watching video monitors while hooked up to headphones?

Two of the producers of A Most Wanted Man are Le Carre’s sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell, and they have shown good judgment in their choice of screenwriter, Australian Andrew Bovell (Lantana), who keeps the intrigue percolating while paring away everything necessary to deliver the essentials in two hours. The story is a jigsaw puzzle in which all the pieces are of an indistinguishable gray, making fitting them together a tricky matter.

Director Corbijn, a photographer whose earlier films Control and The American share carefully controlled visuals and soft-pedaled drama, works with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme to use the subdued and gritty colors of the German port town to evocatively gloomy effect. The storytelling is tart and understated, at times no doubt too much so for newcomers to Le Carre’s shadowy world.

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Hoffman dominates on a playing field where everything is relative. Neither McAdams, as the lawyer put in squeeze by Bachmann, nor Dafoe, as the smooth banker, are as convincing as Germans as is Hoffman, while Wright brings bright polish to her high-level spook.

As ever with Le Carre, the ending is shot through with despair -- in the world he depicts, things never turn out quite as they should or might have. Nor is it the end of the world; that is once again put off to another day.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Release: Autumn 2014 (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
Production: Potboiler, Amusement Park Films, The Ink Factory
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Nina Hoss, Daniel Bruhl, Herbert Gronemeyer, Mehdi Dehbi, Rainer Bock, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenwriter: Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John Le Carre
Producers: Stephen Cornwell, Gail Egan, Malte Grunert, Simon Cornwell, Andrea Calderwood
Executive producers: John Le Carre, Tessa Ross, Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Sebastian Krawinkel
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Editor: Claire Siimpson
Music: Herbert Gronemeyer
122 minutes