A Most Wanted Man is a delicately controlled and intelligent film. Based on the terrorism-themed novel from the master of espionage John le Carré (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (Lantana, Strictly Ballroom) have created a suspenseful yet subtle film that’s unique to the spy thriller genre.
The film is set a decade after Mohammed Atta planned the 9-11 attacks and the German port city of Hamburg is a paranoid arena for agent Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his underground ant-terrorist team. When refugee Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is found hiding in the city’s Islamic community seeking his father’s fortune, the team is quick to find out what he is up to. Anxious to catch Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who they suspect is laundering money to terrorist organisations, they are positive that Issa can lead them to the evidence they need.
Constantly pressured to move faster by the heads of Hamburg intelligence and closely observed by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) – Günter desperately wants his operation to be left alone and it’s unorthodox methods intact. They use Issa’s lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and bank owner Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) as pawns, playing them in a strategic chess-like game, careful to make the right move before their time runs out.
Before films, Corbijn had carved a career as a music photographer (shooting for the most famous bands in the world from U2 to The Rolling Stones) and has effortlessly transitioned to directing. In his first feature, Control, he used his photographic eye to frame shots worthy of an art exhibition. In A Most Wanted Man however, Corbijn has chosen less of an artistic approach. Opting for hand held cameras and close ups, he graciously allowed the script and actors to take center stage. The exception of this is the opening scene, which is possibly the most gorgeous shot of green sewage water I’ve ever seen. Dancing back and forth like a hypnotic wave, the wash of dirty water quietly forewarns us of what lies above the surface.
By design, the close up shots illustrate how tight the operatives live. Despite their mission “To make the world a safer place” they are enclosed in small spaces, watching the world through hidden cameras. Even with the opportunity to showcase the sleek architecture and skylines of Hamburg, the camera lens spent most of the time capturing the slightest of expressions.
What I appreciated about the realistic nature of Corbiji’s style and Bovell’s streamlined script is the use of silence and stillness for tension (rather than glamorous action sequences). At times it is very slow, but I was encouraged to always be alert in case of an explosion or for something to go wrong. The film is challenging and like the operatives, we have to work for information to piece it all together – sometimes left scrambling when they do pick up the pace.
One of the calm and loveliest aspects of A Most Wanted Man was witnessing the relationship between Günter and his collegue Erna (Nina Hoss). Even though they are polar opposites (shes prim and poised, he’s flabby and looks as if he’s walking against the wind) they share a reserved tenderness that nearly escapes us. There is almost a secret language in the looks they give each other and every touch is weighed in meaning. Because the relationship is never explained, I felt the need to spy on them in hope to find out more.
Naturally the highlight for audiences will be watching Hoffman playing this hard drinking, disheveled, spy. He was beyond graceful. Despite his appearance, Hoffman was beautiful to watch and possibly even more so because I knew I was watching him for the last time in a leading role. As the camera hung on to his disparaging frown – he radiated his thoughts in understated movements. His leathery German accent helped him wear every cigarette and his bleached skin exaggerated a life spent in shadows.
Perhaps I was too overwhelmed by Hoffman, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in the other performances. Although thrilled to see McAdams branch out but I didn’t find her convincing as a the reckless human-rights attorney who bikes around the city. I had hoped she would be tougher and dirtier. Her German accent was distracting rather than effortless and adding regrowth to her blond hair wasn’t enough of a transformation. Unfortunately, I saw the star before the character. I was persuaded by the cool and elegant American played by Wright, however I didn’t feel like she had to stretch too far from her House of Cards character. She plays the part seamlessly, but I would have liked to see someone less obvious for this role.
If you are patient you will really enjoy this film. It’s quietly powerful and carefully controlled. Like the spies themselves you won’t be living a life of instant gratification, but it’s worth the wait. The finale is heartbreaking, devastating and will leave you crushed. Especially with it’s final moment, watching Hoffman walk off screen and into the grey smog, A Most Wanted Man will haunt you for days.
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