A Most Wanted Man is the fifth feature film from Dutch director Anton Corbjin, and is notable for one of the last performances of a modern cinematic great, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is fitting that, in one of his final screen appearances, the immensely talented Hoffman is far and away the best thing about the film. The most compelling scenes involve him, and even though he holds the majority of screen time in this post-9/11 European spy thriller, the film would be even better were it to look further into the soul of Gunther Bachmann, his wearied spy.
Set in a Hamburg that looks freezing in every shot, the film depicts Bachmann’s attempts to use Issa Karpov, a suspected Chechen terrorist, as a key to uncovering a wider, potentially devastating threat. He works with a variety of people, including local immigration lawyer Annabelle Richter (Rachel McAdams), shady banker Tommy Brue (Willem ‘good-in-everything’ Dafoe) and senior members of both the German state and American embassy. Bachmann and his political cohorts claim the same aim, ‘to make the world a safer place’. The film explores the methods people will use to achieve this objective, all in the light of a failure in Bachmann’s past in a similar situation. Who decides what is ‘safety’? Do the rights of the many supersede those of the individual? And will anyone in this film smile?
After a slow start A Most Wanted Man really gets going in its middle section. As shown in previous adaptations of his work, the writing of John LeCarré lends itself to the screen in a particular way. Long silences, frowns and frustration writ large across the visages abound here, just as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As there, the central performance very much supports the film. There have been few actors as natural as Hoffman. One can only postulate on his personal feelings to his profession, but he makes acting and becoming a character look easy. I believe such a talent would be a result of a sharp understanding of writing, and an equally potent knowledge of how his movements appear on the camera. It is a tragedy for the arts world that he is gone.
This is not up there with the best films he has appeared in, failing to recreate the tense ambiguities of Doubt and The Master or the colourful ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. The importance of sound and the act of listening shown here reminded me somewhat of two of the legendary espionage movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s extraordinary The Conversation and German Oscar winner Das Leben Der Anderen. The difference is that those two films used twisting narratives to look deep into the soul of their protagonists; the plot criss-crosses for sure here, but I felt a constant sense that there was more to all of these characters that we just weren’t seeing. Hoffman, though, is talent enough to make any film in which he appears worth a watch.