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Review: 'A Most Wanted Man' works better when it's over than in the moment

In one of his last roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman headlines the John Le Carre adaptation of "A Most Wanted Man," about the pursuit of a Chechen refugee.

Philip Seymour Hoffman sits in one of the more striking rooms in "A Most Wanted Man." Credit: Kerry Brown Philip Seymour Hoffman sits in one of the more striking rooms in "A Most Wanted Man."
Credit: Kerry Brown

'A Most Wanted Man'
Director: Anton Corbijn
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Film is a medium of sensations, meaning it’s not always kind to plot. That’s a shame for John Le Carre: His beloved spy novels (“Tinker Tailor Solider Spy”) tend to be chock full of plot. It’s difficult to smash his sprawling, dense, twisty-turny narratives into a mere two hours of screentime without rendering them impenetrable. Miniseries treat him better, although the story of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” was compact enough to make for a riveting 1965 film, starring Richard Burton.

“A Most Wanted Man,” his 2008 bestseller and now a splashy Euro-pudding film, is one that’s all plot. It takes awhile to suss it out, but the story concerns the pursuit of a young Chechen refugee, Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), in Hamburg by various agencies: one that wants to protect him (while using him to nab a moneyed Arabian businessman with alleged ties to terrorism) and one that simply wants to nab him. On the former side is Gunter (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the German head of an anti-terrorism team that seeks a more nuanced relationship with local Muslims than does the American side, embodied by a dubious CIA agent (Robin Wright).

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The novel isn’t terribly long, but the source has still been whittled down to the point where it has no room for characters, apart from the personalities smuggled in by the many terrific actors. (These include Rachel McAdams as a human rights lawyer helping Issa and Willem Dafoe as a haunted banker, both speaking, like Hoffman, with light German accents alongside actual German actors Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl.) In a sense this can be infuriating, especially as we’re often left with little to do but observe chatty scenes in usually strikingly bureaucratic or transportingly smoky rooms that will, we hope, build to a terrific pay-off. (Spoiler: There’s a great pay-off, albeit not the kind you may expect.)

Rachel McAdams plays a lawyer trying to help a Chechen refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) in "A Most Wanted Man." Credit: Kerry Brown Rachel McAdams plays a lawyer trying to help a Chechen refugee (Grigoriy Dobrygin) in "A Most Wanted Man."
Credit: Kerry Brown

But there’s another reason the lack of characterization works. It means we have no one to trust. Every character is not just morally slippery; they’re borderline unknowable. We don’t trust Wright American agent, but she has a flirty quality that disarms us because it makes her briefly, maybe wrongly, seem human. We think we trust Hoffman’s Gunter, but we’re not sure what his angle is, and he surprises us halfway through by doing something that, at least initially, seems downright villainous.

This is Le Carre’s world: the one where everyone is only somewhat knowable, and probably to some degree dangerous. Director Anton Corbijn (“Control,” “The American”) is a photographer turned filmmaker, and it’s a bit disappointing that he brings little but a handheld intimacy that seems, for this genre, boilerplate. But even that approach winds up working in the grand scheme of things — keeping us detached from what’s going on, forcing us to observe. It also avoids the showoffiness that turned the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” film into a fragmented mess, every scene a different movie. It’s of a piece.

This piece, mind you, is better in retrospect, once all the pieces are in place, than it is in the moment. Only in the final sequence does the film and particularly Hoffman — who till then plays shlubby, boozy, slow and depressed — spring scarily to life. Would this scene boast the same power if the whole film was at that pitch? Probably not. But it comes at a cost.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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