A Most Wanted Man ****1/2 (out of five)
Anton Corbijn’s third feature is a modern masterpiece in a minor key; a rare example of the director, scriptwriter and creative team producing an original artistic work that it is completely, and successfully, committed to having nothing less than full integrity in relation to the intentions, style, tone and voice of the underlying source material.
That source material belongs to John le Carré, who has been surprisingly well served by adaptations over the years despite being known to be notoriously tricky to adapt. Perhaps there is a correlation: only those skilful enough to adapt le Carré have the balls to try. The best versions of his books have been The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (mini-series, 1979), The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) but to my mind A Most Wanted Man is the best yet.
Set in Hamburg, post-911, the film follows German spy Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team as they follow leads, connect dots and try and gather information in the face of various other departments – of various nationalities – wanting speedy results. In particular, they are interested in a known Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has popped into Hamburg illegally, looking like a homeless man and seeking the help of a humanist lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Theoretically, Karpov can lead to a bigger fish, who can lead to a bigger fish, and so on. There is no real objective, just the relentless gathering of intel; no real product, just endless, meticulous process.
I don’t know if the intelligence gathering game works like this but it sure feels like it does; the movie bleeds with authenticity, or at least its perfect illusion. Andrew Bovell’s rich and idiosyncratic screenplay manages to ride a perfect line of accessible complexity and Le Carré obfuscation (a line which I felt the 2011 Tinker Tailor crossed, to its detriment); it’s a challenging plot, but always within reach, and time is allowed for many, many sublime character moments – just wait for Günther’s little moment in a seedy dive bar.
Every single shot – and I mean every single shot in the whole movie – is exquisite. Corbijn, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, and the production, set and costume and artistic design team work together to create a stunningly photographed and realised Hamburg full of ordinary spies and suspects going about their work; every scene is banal, and yet every scene is beautiful. Somehow, with some dark magic, Corbijn and Delhomme achieve perfect framing in every shot (Corbijn is also a renowned still photographer); it’s the best looking film of the year thus far.
Hoffman wears a very large gut like Bogart wore a trenchcoat, as an indelible signifier of character; I can’t recall him ever being fatter on screen, and, with his constant smoking and extremely pale face, he looks dangerously unwell (Günther also drinks scotch throughout the film, but we can assume that, at least, is a prop). It is a quick and obvious leap to suspect that Günther, unless he radically changes his lifestyle, is headed for a young death, and real-life circumstances hover around the film and Hoffman’s performance in a way that, sadly and weirdly, is in perfect alignment with everything that is going on: in one scene, Günther offers a cigarette, and when told by his companion that she quit, he offers, spookily, “Good luck with that.”
But the role with the most meat, the most dilemma, and there most heart, is that of Annabel, and McAdams once again scores on all levels. This luminous Canadian could easily have gone down the route Hollywood reserves for women as beautiful and inherently likeable as her, but she chooses with intelligence and bravery, coming to roles like this and owning them. Although there are many excellent actresses who must have been considered for the role (among them, supposedly, Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain and Carey Mulligan), by the end of the film you can’t imagine anyone other than McAdams in it. She’s really good.
And this is a fantastic film. Corbijn’s first film, Control, succeeded almost perfectly; his second, The American, was too interested in its look to worry about its story, but here, all stars have aligned. He dispatches each scene like a maestro snooker player sinking balls, with power, style, and, most importantly, absolute precision. See it on the big screen.