A Most Wanted Man
Anton Corbijn, director
Andrew Bovell, script based on the novel by John le Carré
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Gunther Bachmann), Rachel McAdams (Annabel Richter), Willem Dafoe (Tommy Brue), Robin Wright (Martha Sullivan), Grigoriy Dobrygin (Issa Karpov), Derya Alabora (Leyla), Daniel Bruhl (Max), Nina Hoss (Erna Frey), Homayoun Ershadi (Dr. Faisal Abdullah), Mehdi Dehbi (Jamal)
Death offers us the opportunity to make grand pronouncements about people and share emotional insights into their ultimate place in the world. It’s hard to pass up a chance to say something about Philip Seymour Hoffman, the supremely gifted actor whose final film A Most Wanted Man is opening in Toronto today. A spy thriller set in dour industrial Hamburg, it gave Hoffman the chance to create a more than serviceable German accent and show how well he could convey the character of an espionage leader out of small, meaningful details. It’s not the showiest of roles but it presents us with one final impressive character in Hoffman’s oeuvre, Gunther Bachmann, a sombre, tough secret agent, seizing on a chance to make an impact in the post 9/11 world.
A Most Wanted Man is a typically complex spy novel written by the master of the form, John le Carré. The much lauded writer got to know Hoffman on the set of the film and offered a profound insight into his character late last week. Calling his presence “luminescent,” he went on, “Philip was the real thing: a shining, artistic polymath with an intelligence that came at you like a pair of headlights and enveloped you from the moment he grabbed your hand, put a huge arm round your neck and shoved a cheek against yours.”
Hard to top that! And it does offer a window into Hoffman’s motivation for abusing drugs. Perhaps the world was just too hard a place for someone with Hoffman’s depth of emotion and intelligence.
One can only speculate about Hoffman’s relationship to Gunther Bachmann. How closely did he relate to Bachmann’s profound philosophical dejection and remarkable sense of professionalism?
A Most Wanted Man is dominated by Bachmann though, as is always the case with le Carré, other fully etched characters are operating in his dark vision of contemporary Hamburg. There’s Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a beautiful idealistic human rights lawyer, working on behalf of a mysterious illegal Muslim immigrant from Chechnya, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has come to claim a fortune left to him by his Russian gangster father. And there’s Tommie Brue (Willem Dafoe), the bank owner, who is forced by Bachmann to honour an agreement between his father and Karpov’s, which would make the Chechen a wealthy man. Shadowing them all is Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), the powerful American agent, who may be supporting Bachmann’s attempt to entrap Issa Karpov and Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) in a conspiracy that has international consequences.
Anton Corbijn guides his expert cast well. Particularly impressive are McAdams, Dafoe and Wright, who play off Hoffman quite well. Corbijn came to acclaim as a photographer and his visual compositions highlight the atmospheric noir-ish cinematography that suffuses the film.
It would be grand to say that A Most Wanted Man is a masterpiece. Adapting le Carré is a very difficult task; it’s nearly impossible to convey his plots and characters in two hours. But this is a strong genre piece with terrific moments and a brilliant, twisted, pay off. It’s well worth seeing, particularly to say “adieu” to Hoffman.
Reviewed by Marc Glassman.