Best New Movies

A Most Wanted Man – Movie Review

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A Most Wanted Man – Review by David Turpin

Directed by: Anton Corbijn

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright

Best New Movie

Celebrated photographer Anton Corbijn’s third narrative feature, A Most Wanted Man, is a measured, impeccably crafted adaptation of John Le Carré’s 21st novel, a bestseller in 2008. The film revolves around Issa Karpov (Grigory Dobrygin) a Chechan refugee who enters Hamburg illegally, sparking the interest of a number of parties, including a counter-terrorist espionage agency headed by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Hoffman, in his last leading role, is marvellously rumpled as Bachmann, capturing his exhaustion and anger as well as his cunning. The part is nobody’s idea of a stretch for the actor, but he plays it with a restraint that matches Corbijn’s cool directorial style. Although circumstances have drawn most eyes to Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man is actually an ensemble piece, with at least seven pivotal roles in play. The drawback to this is that the talent for minute, lingering observation that characterised Corbijn’s earlier films – especially The American (2010) – is kept on a tight leash here. The compensation is that Corbijn has clearly had his pick of acting talent to fill these roles.

As bicycle-riding lawyer Annabel Richter, Rachel McAdams brings more than mere naivety to a character uncharitably described by Bachmann as a “social worker for terrorists”. The gradual erosion of her idealism gives A Most Wanted Man its most human strand, particularly in a lengthy interrogation sequence. Elsewhere, aficionados of the cold-blooded Claire Underwood on House of Cards will get a similar thrill from Robin Wright’s brief but forceful turn here, although it must be said that tapping so directly into Wright’s small-screen persona is not without its drawbacks when it comes to the element of surprise. Among the American players, Willem Dafoe draws the short straw as banker Tommy Brue. Playing a part that has been significantly cut down from Le Carré’s novel, Dafoe isn’t given the scope to bring Brue’s conflicted impulses into focus. Of the native Germans, Nina Hoss does a lot with a little, playing Hoffman’s deputy with warmth, intelligence and subdued humour, while Daniel Brühl barely registers as a member of their team. As Karpov, Dobrygin – who made a strong impression in How I Ended this Summer (2010) – remains a cipher throughout, perhaps necessarily so.

As one might expect, A Most Wanted Man is tremendously photographed, capturing Hamburg with a piercing sense of place – from the shadowy warmth of a dive bar to the hideous fluorescent light of Bachmann’s operational base. That said, it doesn’t quite match the allure of Tomas Alfredson’s fantastic 2011 adaptation of Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Without that film’s Cold War setting, A Most Wanted Man’s depiction of day-to-day spy-craft lacks the earlier film’s exoticism, and its appealing touch of the gothic. However, while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy operated at a safe distance from contemporary politics, A Most Wanted Man engages more directly with the concerns of our time. There’s an elemental power to the opening image of Karpov emerging from the Elbe (a literal “rise of the dispossessed”, perhaps) and it’s at first somewhat deflating that the mystery of his exact intentions is not the film’s main concern. Then again, this is a film about deflation and disillusionment – Bachmann’s and ours – and it moves patiently and inexorably through a compromised moral world that’s recognisable as our own, even if we’d rather it wasn’t. As spy dramas go, A Most Wanted Man isn’t a particularly tense watch, at least not in the conventional sense, and audiences expecting a mystery may be surprised to find that it’s not particularly surprising either. However, there is force in its cool detachment – suggesting that as power migrates ever further away from the individual into a shadowy hierarchy, the only response is to bear witness, to observe. There are few filmmakers working in commercial cinema who are better suited to this task than Corbijn.

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