VOD film review: A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman8
John le Carré8
James R | On 13, Sep 2016
Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Daniel Brühl, Nina Hoss
“It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark.” That’s Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a patient man explaining his patient approach to spycraft in a movie that’s as patient as they come. Based on the John le Carré novel of the same name, and directed by Control helmer Anton Corbijn, it’s a slow-paced tale of clinical procedure and cynical international relations – all the more riveting because of it.
Andrew Bovell’s script turns the 2008 book into a decidedly low-key thriller, one that’s consciously understated in every aspect. Where another film set in the aftermath of 9/11 might turn up the urgency, A Most Wanted Man dials it down to examine the mechanisms of counterterrorism. For Bachmann, it’s a game that’s played cautiously, as his team that – in his words – not many people know about and even fewer people like try to root out the next potential terrorists planning another atrocity.
In this case, it’s Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen immigrant who may or may not be up to no good. Armed with a letter of introduction to a wealthy banker (Willem Dafoe), he immediately attracts the attention of Bachmann’s higher-ups, who are keen to interrogate and detain where necessary. But Bachmann isn’t convinced that Karpov is a terrorist – and, more to the point, thinks that waiting to trap him could lead them to bigger fish.
It’s a dogged approach driven by experience – and you can see every inch of that experience worn on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s face, shoulders and feet. He walks with a weariness that’s born from the unending cycle of betrayals, deceit and manipulation, a cycle that he’s nonetheless determined to stay on top of. Hoffman is a towering screen presence, all the more so because he brings with such diminutive detail to his performance; the smaller he plays, the bigger the impact he has, the kind of inverse charisma that makes his character-oriented acting sadly missed on the screen. This was his last leading role, and it’s a fitting one, giving him the spotlight so that he can disappear inside it.
Anton Corbijn, another often-absent figure in cinema whose composition and composure are second to none, follows Hoffman’s lead, slowing down to match Bachmann’s deliberate style. He directs with a beautiful precision, steeping everything in disillusioned shades of grey and brown, all slumped shoulders, atmospherically lit rooms and stubbed out cigarettes. The suspense comes not from big set pieces, but from the gradual assembling of a delicate case of evidence – one that could be undermined at any point, perhaps, paradoxically, even by its successful closure.
Drilling into everyone’s motivations and suspicions is Robin Wright’s superbly frosty CIA agent Martha Sullivan, who supports Bachmann while still trying to work out what exactly his goal is. But this is a world where playbooks are written – and rewritten – by people without cooperation or understanding, and A Most Wanted Man’s nail-biting conclusion makes it clear that, in the modern world of espionage, even a slow and steady approach does not always pay off. Whether you’re a minnow, barracuda or a shark, the circle of life just keeps going round.