A Most Wanted Man -- A Textured, Slow-Burning Spy Thriller

                                            Reading a John le Carre's espionage novel is like watching in real time, the workings of wild life photographer. We all might understand the great end result produced by those two different professionals. But, possessing immense patience to watch them carry through their work is wholly another matter. Unlike James Bond or any other rollicking spy agent, the protagonists of le Carre fiction wears a drab expression that says ‘I have seen everything’. Le Carre’s heroes and villains work inside colorless offices behind cluttered desks. The guys sporting guns and special equipments would also be there in his stories, but they only come off as a minion, who is just a little piece of a larger puzzle.  To the eyes of uninitiated, it might seem nothing much happens in a John le Carre spy novel, but if you dwell in with enough patience, you might feel lots of things are happening and some far exceeding to grasp.

                                         Le Carre’s “A Most Wanted Man” is definitely not in the league of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”. It’s an above average novel, but considered as the British author’s important work since he harped into the contours of the post 9/11 state of emergency.  Director Anton Corbijn’s adaptation of “A Most Wanted Man” stays true to the routines of le Carre material (although this isn’t the best adaptation of his works) and in the future might seen as the last quality film from revered actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of drug overdose on February 2014. As always, there are lot of characters, hidden agendas, and themes here, for the viewers to process and digest.

                                       The story takes place in Hamburg, Germany. After 9/11, the intelligence community in the city is on high alert as Mohammad Atta, one of the Al-Qaeda plotters of 9/11, worked from the port city, Hamburg. The police and peace-keepers are already on the move to make showy arrests and to reassure the public that everything is under control. Chief of German anti-terrorist squad in Hamburg, Gunther Bachman (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is very keen to see that no new terrorist cell operates on his watch, in his city. In that setting, a bearded young refugee named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) literally washes up on the shores of Hamburg.

                                     Issa is a Chechen and a suspected Islamic militant. Soon, Bachman’s anti-terror unit stalks this illegal immigrant and finds that he is residing in the house of a Turkish mother and son. Issa has arrived to Hamburg to locate a banker (Willem Dafoe), bearing the key to a fortune. Issa is helped by a human rights group lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who works to find a safe haven for bewildered refugees.  Do-gooder lawyer, Annabel is soon brought in for interrogation by Bachman, and Issa becomes a bait for bringing in a big fish named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), whose charities is suspected to be funneling money to terrorist organizations. And, you could feel that something sinister is going to happen when there is CIA operative (Robin Wright) watching over the proceedings. 

                                   “I head an anti-terror unit that not many people know about and even less like”. As Gunther, Hoffman utters these words and every other ones with a very convincing voice and bearing. Only great actors can showcase the inner workings of their mind without uttering a word. Hoffman possesses that gift for silence as he easily conveys what his character feels through the camera’s stillness. If you have read Le Carre’s espionage fiction, you could easily predict that despair is waiting for us in the final pages, and it becomes more fascinating (and also dismaying) to watch this despair through the eyes of Hoffman. As always Hoffman doesn’t give us showy performance to win awards. His greatness lies in the underplaying and in those slightest reactions and modulations.

                                    Hoffman and screenwriter Andrew Bovell somewhat turns the film into a one-man show. Bored, middle-aged Banker Tommy Brue’s awakening and the relationship between Annabel and Issa took the center stage in the novel, whereas here the writer has jettisoned the wounded romanticism to put forth Bachman front and center. It’s not bad to concentrate fully on the hard-hearted procedural of contemporary espionage, but since the focus is on Bachman, the ending only causes numbness rather than shock. However, one plot point that was made better in the movie was the relationship between Bachman and his trusted aide, Irna Frey, played by German actress Nina Hoss. She attends to him like a wife or mother, and he looks at her with a mixture of fond and pain, suggesting that there are hidden feelings beneath the layer of companionship.

                                   Corbijn’s shots and Benoit Delhomme’s lensing wonderfully highlights dark corners and sharp edges of Hamburg, as if the city was plunged into a perpetual gloom. The grand and grimy background never lets you forget that act of terrors are waiting upon the corners. Corbijn, like his last film “The American”, once again proceeds with care, giving time for the viewer to soak into the story’s mysteries.

                                  “A Most Wanted Man” (122 minutes) is a quietly gripping thriller that ponders over the sinistral workings of the intelligence-gathering world. It also serves as the bittersweet reminder of Philips Seymour Hoffman’s prodigious acting talents.



Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Brilliant analysis of an important work of cinema... I agree that "A Most Wanted Man" is not in the same league as "Tinker Tailor...". It's Hoffman's film from start to finish... that final agony of anguish says it all... how Günther was a mere pawn as all his efforts had got undermined in Berut and the same was to inevitably happen in Hamburg. The endless hypocrisies of high office politics and the lack of compassion is revolting to watch... how less is the worth of human life is most worrying.

Günther seemed like the last vestige of humanity in a world of deceit and endless malice where human beings are a mere means of holding supremacy over one's rivals. Hoffman's character seems like the only one who has any value for human life and the fact that he still has hope is a great example of inexorable optimism in an out and out pessimistic world. Günther is a pacifist... he is also a great tactician but when it comes to devising a foolproof strategy, he is just not good enough and that's his bane and of those who trust him with their lives.

Arun Kumar said...

@ Murtaza Ali, thanks for taking time to read and for commenting. You are right, Gunther lacked the abilities to design that robust strategy in the final moments. On second thought, I think it's better that the director and writer projected Gunther as protagonist, unlike the novel, where Annabel is the central character. Rachel McAdams' perspective would have only made it melodramatic. Nothing is comparable in front of Hoffman's perplexed, silent gaze.