The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
A Most Wanted Man

Reviewed by Joseph Oldham.

Director Anton Corbijn
Length 122 mins
Certificate 15/R
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Just three years on from the release of the highly acclaimed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) another adaptation of iconic spy novelist John Le Carré is in the cinema, yet the contrast between the two films is substantial. Whilst Tinker Tailor was a highly stylised period piece, peering curiously into the mysterious intelligence culture of a bygone era, A Most Wanted Man is resolutely contemporary, adopting a much more low-key and naturalistic visual style and presenting a narrative guided by more immediately topical concerns. Published in 2008, the novel was widely characterised as Le Carré's response to the 'war on terror' and controversial aspects of the Bush administration's foreign policy. Whether this particular story retains the same vitality and bite six years on in a changed political landscape is a more complex question which I intend to approach in the Alternate Take.

Instead of the labyrinthine narrative and epic scope of Tinker Tailor, which spanned Cold War Europe and multiple timeframes, A Most Wanted Man is in many respects a smaller-scale and more intimate film. The story takes place almost entirely within Hamburg, a city in which Le Carré himself apparently once served as British agent many decades ago and which has appeared in many of his previous books, and this location invests the film with a highly specific urban character. Indeed, in the 21st century Hamburg has become charged with a new and wider significance for, as the opening caption reminds us, it is where the 9/11 attacks were planned without detection by the authorities. The film effectively harnesses this sense of anxiety, utilising the city to provide a microcosmic portrait of the issues of the 'war on terror' and thereby reflect broader political currents in the Western world.

The most wanted man of the title is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a refugee from Chechnya who arrives him Hamburg seeking a mysterious inherited fortune held in a bank owned by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). Whilst his cause is taken up by the idealistic human rights lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), Issa also comes to the attention of the German intelligence services, who are paranoid and anxious to avoid the mistakes of the past, and suspect him of being a potential terrorist. However, one particular intelligence officer, Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), develops an alternative perspective, considering Issa as a useful player in a much longer game.

Inevitably, the tragic early death of Hoffman casts a shadow over A Most Wanted Man, providing a lens for much of the critical attention it has attracted and lending an extra layer to the already tense and moody atmosphere of the film itself. It is certainly a worthy performance to sit amongst Hoffman's final career work, and the actor compellingly fills the role of cerebral and methodical spy operating somewhat at odds with the surrounding bureaucracy that Le Carré has specialised in since the days of George Smiley. He is also ably supported by McAdams and Dafoe as the innocents caught up in the machinations of the intelligence world, providing a more grounded and human element in counterpoint. Whilst A Most Wanted Man seems unlikely to attract the attention of Tinker Tailor it is, in a comparatively subdued and understated way, just as rich and absorbing.

Alternate Take to follow soon...

This review was published on September 25, 2014.

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