When I first heard Philip Seymour Hoffman would be starring in a movie adaptation of a John le Carré novel, I got very excited – it seemed about time the paths of these two luminaries should cross. As it turns out, A Most Wanted Man (2014), Hoffman’s last major lead performance, couldn’t be a more appropriate send-off for one of Hollywood’s legendary actors. It’s also a surprisingly good adaptation of one of le Carré’s lesser known late works, coming at the source material from an unexpected angle.
In Hamburg, Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) is a downtrodden German intelligence officer tasked with battling the war on terror. When a young half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg, Bachmann and his team go into action monitoring the illegal arrival. Despite pressure to swoop in an arrest Karpov, Bachmann has a longer game in mind: he wants to track Karpov’s movements and see what he’s up to. His patience pays off when Karpov recruits an idealistic young lawyer named Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) to help him get in touch with a shady British banker, Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). It turns out Karpov has inherited vast sums of laundered Russian mafia money – a circumstance Bachmann decides to spin, methodically, to his advantage in his targeting of a suspected terrorist financier, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).
The film was directed by Anton Corbijn, who also helmed The American – a similar film in a similar milieu. But whereas The American seemed more interested in style and visuals, A Most Wanted Man is clearly more focused on performance and plot. The result is a much more satisfying film. It’s rife with le Carré’s trademark themes and elements: intricate plotting, characters torn between idealism and cynicism, understated spy craft, thorny geopolitical conflicts. Andrew Bovell’s script inverted my expectations, though; I seem to recall the novel being more from Tommy Brue’s point of view, but the story has been cleverly retooled to focus on Bachmann’s man-hunt and subsequent maneuverings, and it makes for a more focused and intriguing story.
Or perhaps that’s simply the impact of Hoffman, who delivers an exquisite swan song here, playing classic spy-world stuff: the experienced, disillusioned veteran intelligence officer who knows how to play the game brilliantly, even if he can’t always remember why he’s playing it. Whether subtly flirting with his colleague Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), butting heads with rival Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), or cagily exchanging information with an American CIA officer (Robin Wright), Hoffman is utterly convincing, exuding gravitas. He’s even more impressive at rest or saying nothing, the failures and disappointments of his career – only hinted at in the script – written all over his every nuanced gesture. He doesn’t just play Bachmann, he inhabits him, and it sells the film.
Which doesn’t make it a perfect one, alas. As with The American, I didn’t find much energy to Corbijn’s artistry. The slow, deliberate build-up contributes to the emotional effect, but it’s at the expense of narrative momentum. Then again, it makes the brutal door-slam of a finale all the more powerful, even if the message is strident. Reservations aside, it’s still a very, very good spy film, especially worth watching for Hoffman’s intense, brooding, weighty performance. He will be missed.