Espionage is often likened to chess; which doesn’t quite do the volatility of A Most Wanted Man‘s tradecraft justice. Imagine that you’re playing chess but instead of you being able to coordinate the moves of your pieces along the board you must influence and motivate their move, without revealing the fact that they are participating in any kind of intelligence gathering activity. Add in some sabotage from other parties constantly wanting to direct pieces for their own doing or an unnamed opponent that’s looking to undermine and recruit your pawns for their own cause. Director Anton Corbijn and writers Andrew Bovell and Stephen Cornwall have adapted the John Le Carré novel of the same name with emotional precision and a simmering pace.
Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) escapes from Russia into Hungary. He’s seeking asylum and an inheritance held by mysterious financier Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Günther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his team see Issa as the perfect bait for a more appetising catch, Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) an alleged terrorism financier posing as a legitimate business man.
The script from Mr Bovell and Mr Cornwall does an impeccable job of becoming progressively engaging as it uncoils the web of interactions and characters. It’s like complex chemistry that must stew for the appropriate time before the explosion reveals the ingredients. Novelist Mr. Le Carré (of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy fame) has a style that coordinates the release of information for each character and the plot with an exact ascent.
From the director’s chair Mr. Corbijn (Control, The American) almost has a meditative patience in moulding his performers to the material. While cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytema took stillness to a transcendent place in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for director Tomas Alfredson, director of photography Benoît Delhomme wants you to feel like you’re on the ground infiltrating these covert networks.
Günther Bachmann is one of the great Phillip Seymour Hoffman characters. Mr Hoffman feels like the same kind of destructive professional as Bachmann; taking to the job with a myopic view that ignores the ill health of constantly occupying bars, eating take out, and chain smoking as a respite from the taxing emotional cryptography. The signature moment for the character is while drinking after hours and attempting to ally himself with Ms. Wright’s Sullivan, he intervenes in the ugly situation of a boyfriend abusing his girlfriend. Standing swift and laying out the abuser, expecting his chivalry to be rewarded, instead the girl dives to the hurt partner and consoles him. For all the sophistication required in his day to day interaction, humans are unpredictable messy creatures.
Robin Wright’s Martha Sullivan presents the U.S presence, casting a menacing, policing shadow atop the Europe’s intelligence arrangement. Ms. Wright has an indefinable regal quality that reverberates through every scene. Intimidatingly beautiful, a fearsome gaze and a poker face that provokes discomfort; watching the exchanges between Ms. Wright and Mr Hoffman feels watching a battle between to black belts in imparting nuance.
The most valuable target for the team, aside from Issa, is Rachel McAdams international lawyer Annabel Richter. Ms. Adams, sporting a new German inflection, gets to demonstrate the recruitment process in the most frightening and ethically ambivalent ways. Willem Dafoe, gets to wrestle with Tommy Brue’s burden that he’s the heir to a banking empire built on Russian military corruption. The tapestry of accomplished performers, in parts of any size, is a testament to the material. Alongside Bachmann is Nina Hoss’ Irna Fey, a diplomatic core of the silent team. Daniel Brühl, an outstanding leading performer in his own right, is happy to fill out the unassuming and tireless team mobilising Bachmann’s strategy. Dobrygin as Issa provide a hypnotic and conflicting performance as the pious victim at the centre of the oppressive actions of numerous international bodies.
A Most Wanted Man is a mercurial puzzle; it’s espionage done right from the right source material.
[rating=4] and a half
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Anton Corbijn
Written by: Andrew Bovell and Stephen Cornwall, based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name
Starring: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Rachael McAdams, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Homayoun Ershadi, Mehdi Dehbi, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brül, Vicky Krieps, Kostja Ullmann, Rainer Bock and Willem Dafoe