A Second Look: A Most Wanted Man


James Bartlett takes another look at Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man


Based on the novel by spymaster supremo John le Carré, this German-based thriller is bang-up-to-date in terms of subject matter, and like his other most noted works (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Constant Gardener) require a more measured and cerebral approach – something of a rarity in these endless eons of comic book kapows.


Yes, that means there aren’t lots of shootouts and explosions; instead we’re in a complicated and covert world where harassed, dog-tired German agent Günther Bachmann (Seymour Hoffman) learns about Issa (Dobrygin), a Chechen/Russian who has turned up in Hamburg and found friends amongst the Muslim community there.


While Issa himself says almost nothing (though the scars and burns on his back speak volumes), he has a photograph of man he says is his estranged father. If that’s true, Issa is the heir to a massive fortune, but – as Bachmann finds out – that money could be dirty, and become deadly in the wrong hands. Hamburg is the cargo capital of Europe you see, and security is so lax that there are just too many ways something could be smuggled out.


Under pressure, Bachmann reluctantly takes advice from smooth, calculating US Ambassador Mitchell (Wright), while Issa finds an ally in human rights lawyer Annabel (McAdams), who wants to get him a visa to stay. It’s not going to be as simple as that though, not in the world we live in now, and as agents start to circle overhead like vultures over a carcass, it’s time for Bachmann and his weary team to make a move….


As 2014 starts the final lap, it’s been rather a soul-destroying year in the world of the movies – and of course I mean off the big screen, with Seymour Hoffman’s drug overdose back in February, Robin Williams’ suicide and the death of other names including Bob Hoskins, Lauren Bacall, Mickey Rooney, Eli Wallach, Shirley Temple and Richard Attenborough. Those names cover almost every genre and period of Hollywood history, and by the time this film – Seymour Hoffman’s last – was released, there was a pall of expectation (or something like that) over it.


Truth be told, Seymour Hoffman looks like a man on the edge here. Puffy, baggy-eyed, never without a cigarette and a whisky, his breath coming in loud gasps: you can retrospectively say his end was perhaps predictably nigh – though of course you’d be wrong, as least in some ways.


He was just acting – acting as superbly as he always did, even if the film he was in is rather middle-of-the road, solid-but-unspectacular stuff (though the direction by Corbijn and the adaptation by Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell does well to keep the many threads running out).


If this had been set in New York, say, he’d be lauded for his intensity and there would be Oscar talk (he won one for Capote and was nominated for three others – four times in seven years in fact). As it was, that was not to be: the film kind of disappeared in the US, whose audiences are famously averse to seeing anything vaguely foreign-related, to say nothing of movies that require deep concentration.


This movie was heavy-going, that’s for sure, and the German accents wavered with all concerned, but as an albeit-unexpected cap to Seymour Hoffman’s career, it could have been a lot less distinguished. We have his excellent performances to look back on, and though this isn’t one of the best, it’s worth paying for a ticket to see the last bow of one of the era’s most excellent – and most publicly under-appreciated – actors.




A Most Wanted Man


Dir: Anton Corbijn Wri: Andre Bovell Pro: Andre Calderwood, Simon Cornwell, Stephen Cornwell, Gail Egan DOP: Benoit Delhomme ED: Claire Simpson Mus: Herbert Gronemeyer Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin

A German intelligence officer, Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman), operating in Hamburg investigates and attempts to track down a Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Dobrygin), who has illegally immigrated to Germany and is a suspected terrorist. Gunther must try to strike the right balance between doing the right thing and appeasing American spies all too vicious and eager in their hunt for potential terrorists. Young, idealistic lawyer Annabel Richter (McAdams) gets caught up in the messy goings on when she tries to help Issa. Her help involves Issa’s attempts to get money from a suspect banker (Dafoe).  Needless to say as events progress the film gets ever more complicated and twisty in its proceedings with the viewer not ever quite sure who is good and who is bad. This leads on to an explosive, hugely suspenseful ending.

This classy John La Carre adaptation is a slow-burning, engrossing and tense espionage thriller.  Anton Corbijn, director of the solid Ian Curtis adaptation Control and the stylish but empty George Clooney vehicle The American, tells the film’s story in a patient, decidedly competent fashion. There are few traces of the flair he sporadically showed in those other pictures or in his famous work as a photographer. He does bring a coldness to the picture and utilises his Hamburg setting effectively but he also occasionally utilises some lazy techniques to instil emotion in the viewer and ultimately the direction is mostly workmanlike rather than inspired. The acting, on the other hand, is superb. Naturalistic, utterly engaging performances are what draws the viewer into the murky, slippery world of the film. Such is the quality of the actors on show they even make you forget the silliness of the fact that the majority of the characters are German yet constantly speak in English.

McAdams brings a strength and vulnerability to her role as Annabel. Dafoe is as watchable as ever as a somewhat shady banker. But this film will, of course, be best remembered as the last leading role for the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His brilliant performance ensures it’s a fitting if terribly sad end to his career. He brings such an understated touch, such imagination, command and complexity to the role. Gunther is a tough, chain-smoking, moral man. Hoffman plays him as weary and hard-edged but retains a twinkle in the eye, a certain charisma. There are some delightful moments of unpredictability. Hoffman chuckling at a prisoner making an offensive signal at his camera or a terrifically bizarre scene where, in the middle of a meeting with American CIA operative Penn, he breaks up a domestic fight that breaks out in a bar.  It’s impossible to think of any other actor that could have made something so interesting from the role.

Film fans are urged to check this out if only to see the master’s swansong. He’ll be sorely missed.

David Prendeville

15A (See IFCO for details)

121 minutes

A Most Wanted Man is released 12th September 2014

A Most Wanted Man – Official Website