The Dutch director and his cinematographer, Benoît Delhomme, film in the German port city of Hamburg where overcast skies turn the neutral grays, blacks and whites of the urban landscape into a subdued, shadowy world all too befitting a spy story. The movie drips in gloomy atmosphere.
But there is also the painful fact that this is one of the last films to star the great American character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman prior to his tragic death earlier this year. (The two-part “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay” is in post.)
Hoffman would have dominated this film anyway such is the power of his gritty, low-key performance as a disheveled, crafty German intelligence operative with decidedly old-school sensibilities. Fittingly, Hoffman goes out on a high note where his every tug on a cigarette or swing of a whiskey bottle compels your interest.
The spy’s puffy body is so used to its master’s commands that it seems to operate independently from the soul within. He often stares off at an indeterminate distance or glances at a wall covered with pinned-up photos and documents as his mind turns personalities and situations over and over again, trying to pinpoint the locus of various conspiracies. He is also trying to figure out why, as he puts it, “we do what we do.”
A secret shadow warrior, chain-smoking and overly fond of drink, Hoffman’s Gunter Bachmann takes all the clichés about the aging spy and makes them new again. No moment is the least boring or mechanical. Everything has its purpose in describing a man burnt by betrayal, hardened by experience yet strangely determined “to make the world a better place.”
Gunter is, of course, an archetypical hero for a John le Carré novel. In his fiction spanning more than a half century, the former British intelligence officer has probed the morally murky waters of spy craft with a high degree of sagacity and insight.
He is not a spy novelist but rather a novelist, one of our best, who writes about spies.
Many novels have become movies. “A Most Wanted Man” is among the more successful of these adaptions. On this occasion, Le Carré himself is aboard as an exec producer and two of his sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell, are among the film’s producers.
His 2008 novel penetrated the city of Hamburg, which has become to intelligence-gathering in the new multilateral world under threat of Islamic terror what Berlin was during the Cold War threat of Soviet expansion — an epicenter for spooks and political operatives with multiple agendas and loyalties.
Hamburg was where the 9/11 attackers planned their mission. Since then the CIA, Interpol, German intelligence and others have put its large Islamic community under microscopic surveillance.
So not long after a tortured and starved illegal immigrant pulls himself from the River Elbe, German intelligence has already spotted the man on surveillance cameras and identified him as escaped half-Russian, half-Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), whom Interpol considers a militant jihadist.
Hoffman’s Gunter, wearing a credible German accent and the clothes of a man who cares nothing about appearances, runs an under-the-radar anti-terrorist unit who tracks such people. Bachmann’s MO though is to watch and wait, to see where such a jihadi goes and whom he sees rather than nabbing him.
The head of Hamburg arm of Germany’s intelligence service (Rainer Bock), who can barely tolerate Gunter’s existence in the same city, is a snatch-and-grabber, clumsy, inefficient but a constant threat to more subtle plans. So the clock is ticking the minute all the players know of Karpov’s presence in Hamburg.
Unaware of this surveillance, a human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams without a credible German accent) tries to assist Karpov. He is anxious to lay claim to his Russian father’s account in a private bank headed by Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe).
Gunter is also keen to see whether any approach will be made to Dr. Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a prominent and seemingly moderate Muslim academic and charity fund-raiser who Gunter believes might be funneling money to terrorist organizations.
Suddenly at his side but most certainly unwelcome is a high-ranking CIA spy Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) whose interests may or may not — Gunter naturally suspects not — dovetail with his own. Running out of time before his impatient fellow Germans nab the fugitive, Gunter is forced to cooperate with the American against his better judgment.
Australian screenwriter and playwright Andrew Bovell has nicely boiled the novel down into a playable film script, Yet there are clear losses, noticeable even if one isn’t familiar with the book.
Much of the exposition flies by with little chance to catch up if one misses a single point. Annabel’s motivations are never clear unless she is as absurdly naive as she appears.
A relationship between Gunter and his closest colleague, Irna Frey (Nina Hoss), apparently has more significance than the movie has time to probe. The accomplished German actor Daniel Brühl is aboard as another colleague yet has almost nothing to do other than watch video monitors and listen on headphones. Surely something got lost in the writing or editing stages.
Corbijn (“The American” with George Clooney), who is also an established photographer, energetically paces the film while building suspense not through set pieces of action but by means of accumulated scenes, characters and urgencies.
The design of the film is particularly arresting as even the weather and streets underscore the Le Carré themes of deception, disillusionment and despair.
Opens: July 25, 2014 (Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions present a Potboiler/Amusement Park Films/The Ink Factory production
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Herbert Grönemeyer, Mehdi Dehbi, Rainer Bock, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Franz Hartwig, Martin Wuttke, Derya Alabora, Tamer Yigit
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenwriter: Andrew Bovell
Based on the novel by: John Le Carré
Producers: Stephen Cornwell, Gail Egan, Malte Grunert, Simon Cornwell, Andrea Calderwood
Executive producers: John Le Carré, Tessa Ross, Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson
Director of photography: Benoît Delhomme
Production designer: Sebastian Krawinkel
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Editor: Claire Simpson
Music: Herbert Gronemeyer
R rating, 121 minutes