“Do you know where you are? You’re in the real world.”
So mutters Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an experienced and weary espionage agent, in a hushed German accent to an imprisoned Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) midway through A Most Wanted Man. It sets the tone for the whole film, understated yet with a degree of threat just bubbling beneath the surface. Set in a post-9/11 Hamburg, a Muslim Chechen refugee illegally moves to Hamburg and catches the eye of Bachmann who marks him as a potentially dangerous terrorist. What follows is a carefully plotted and generally low key city-wide game of cat and mouse, as Bachmann attempts to discover what Issa Karpov (the refugee) is after.
As it is adapted from a John le Carre novel (most known for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) it deviates from modern spy thrillers like the Bourne films or Brosnan/Craig era Bond largely due to its almost complete omission of action. Not that there isn’t action, but when it occurs it comes in a subdued form, for example trying to subtly evade capture on a train/train station without alerting surrounding civilians. This is one of the few times that the film is hurried along which offers a nice change of pace compared to people sitting around talking. You know a spy thriller is working if something as simple as waiting for a signature gets your heart racing. It seems as if John le Carre’s novels are ripe for cinematic adaptation.
You know a spy thriller is working if something as simple as waiting for a signature gets your heart racing
However, the ‘sitting around and talking’ is actually what makes A Most Wanted Man an enjoyable and tense experience. The kind of tone it has is difficult to attain but it achieves it with such things like a slow moving camera, dark and moody cinematography, a revealing-but-not-too-revealing screenplay terrifically understate performances (mainly from Hoffman). Thanks to these elements (and more) help to make sure that paranoia permeates every scene, whether characters are talking over a coffee or following a suspect the tension levels remain consistently high. We are never quite sure whose side a character is truly on, with the exception of Günther who frequently lays his cards on the table. In this way it is a return to Cold War based spy thrillers, where motivation is king, as opposed to gunshots and explosions.
Despite this, the film is largely dependent on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance for its success. Luckily however, Hoffman is in his usual masterful form. It is difficult to separate Hoffman’s death and the film so constantly throughout the film I was left saddened while thinking about what a truly great loss to cinema he was. All the obituaries are in, but I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about him, if you’ll indulge me. Hoffman had this amazing ability not just be chameleon like in the depths to which he lost himself in roles, but make it appear as if he was born to play every role he was in (expect The Boat That Rocked, but we will let him off). He breathed life into seemingly impossible characters like Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Lancaster Dodd in The Master (2012). A very rare talent indeed and one that will be sorely missed.
Hoffman had this amazing ability to make it appear as if he was born to play every role he was in
Back to A Most Wanted Man. Hoffman is suitably world weary from his clothes, his physique and his speech. Rachel McAdams also shines in her difficult role as sort of lawyer to Karpov and Willem Dafoe is his usual, excellent self. Perhaps the film’s greatest flaws is that the story is not complicated enough and that it is not Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Sure, most of the tension arises from paranoia but by the end, the plot is revealed to be quite simple and probably won’t leave you mulling it over for days. Second, if you are looking for an understated, talkative spy thriller then Tinker Tailor is where you should look. It has all the good qualities of A Most Wanted Man and then some. Still, you can hardly go wrong with this.