Earlier this year, the film world was hugely saddened by the tragic death of the award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. His passing resulted in the heightened sense of anticipation around Anton Corbijn’s spy thriller ‘A Most Wanted Man’, the film to feature his last leading role. Adapted from the book by acclaimed espionage novelist John le Carré, the story centres around intelligence operative Günther Bachmann (Hoffman) and his efforts to track Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a suspected Russian terrorist captured on Hamburg CCTV. The intricate plotting combined with Corbijn’s creative style makes for solid if unspectacular viewing, boosted by an awe-inspiring swan song from one of our most highly regarded performers.
The bleakness of the seedy setting seeps into the atmosphere of the film from the outset with a gloomy sky view of the Elbe harbour, and this murkiness bleeds into the characters, or Bachmann in particular. Wanting to put his blemished past behind him, his old-school methods are upgraded to fall in line with the 21st century but are continuously questioned and intervened with by the post 9/11 westernised attitude towards the Muslim community. Bachmann, fighting what always feels like a losing battle, is dishevelled and weather-beaten though not without a dry sense of humour. He mulls over his evidence on the staple diet of black coffee, cigarettes and Scotch. Like the last le Carré film adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I found the pace sluggishly slow and it is very much in the grown-up cinema category. I imagine I may appreciate its complexities more in time or perhaps after a second watch, but aside from Hoffman’s fine character work, there was little else in this for me.
After a string of strong performances throughout his career, it comes as no surprise that his final central turn is as good as we all hoped it would be. The excellence of his Teutonic accent draws us in initially until we are so taken in by the character that it becomes merely a side note. Bachmann is a man whose talents go unrecognised as others interfere with his carefully planned end game in order to achieve a quick result, and his frustration over this is compelling. No stranger to playing lonely souls hampered by personal demons, this time it feels incredibly raw given the circumstances and the closing scenes hold a cold air of finality. Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams are less than memorable in their supporting roles, the latter’s take on the German accent leaving a lot to be desired. Daniel Bruhl is criminally underused as a spy-tech expert and his casting seems based on geographical factors alone as he isn’t given much to do, despite his capabilities.
‘A Most Wanted Man’ takes a visually interesting look at modern day espionage, bringing racial politics and corruption to the forefront. Despite the plodding nature of the pacing and weightlessness of the supporting cast, it has a vital performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman that just about makes it all worthwhile. We’ve still to see him in the final Hunger Games instalments, but his portrayal of haggard underdog spy Bachmann marks a bittersweet penultimate chapter in his fascinating back catalogue, only highlighting the poignancy of the loss.