Dutch visual artist Anton Corbijn compiles an all-star cast for his much-anticipated film adaptation of John le Carré’s bestselling novel A Most Wanted Man (2014). Starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman alongside Daniel Brühl, Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss and Rachel McAdams, Corbijn’s gritty espionage thriller effortlessly translates le Carré’s prose to the big screen. A Most Wanted Man opens on an individual pulling himself up from a drain shaft. The boy is Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant entering Hamburg and attempting to infiltrate the city’s underground Islamic community. He’s come to lay clam to his father’s fortune, but what could an illegal migrant want with so much money?
Issa’s presence alerts the interest of grand spymaster Günther (Hoffman), whose secret agency has been monitoring the city’s Islamic extremist groups since 9/11. When Issa acquires the assistance of human rights lawyer Annabel (McAdams), Günther and his agency become more involved, trying to decipher whether the money is intended for terrorist activities, and in that case if they should arrest him immediately or if he can actually be used to snare a much bigger fish. This complex cat-and-mouse tale makes use of a myriad of narrative diversions and a multifaceted cast to construct a complex web of intrigue and suspense. There’s a palpable nip in the air throughout A Most Wanted Man, exquisitely realised through the crisp, frosty hues imparted by esteemed French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme.
A chilly thriller for today’s so-called post-9/11 ‘Climate of Fear’, Corbijn commendably keeps the tension bubbling along through the use of sharp, probing dialogue and a penchant for political collusion instead of car chases and gunfire. Capturing the essence of le Carré’s meandering source text, Corbijn’s motley collection of complex anti-heroes feel totally convincing, even if their ultimate mission comes across as a touch far-fetched. A Most Wanted Man is, predictably, largely overshadowed by the haunting presence of Hoffman, and whilst the curiously non-descript pan-European accents used by himself and the rest of the film’s American cast prove relatively distracting, the towering actor’s whisky-drinking, chain-smoking portrayal of the duplicitous Günther undoubtedly dominates proceedings.
Whilst Hoffman shines in a world of muted greys, it’s the notable efforts of his supporting cast which arguably allow him to sparkle. McAdams puts in one of her strongest performances to date, adding a genuine sense of pathos to an incredibly thinly-drawn character. Elsewhere – and somewhat disappointingly – despite being two of Germany’s most recognised working actors, both Brühl and Hoss are underused in a film where the majority of the cast is attempting to mimic the nuances of their enunciation. An otherwise intelligent piece that favours deftness of touch over bombastic thrills, A Most Wanted Man is an efficient espionage drama that, whilst in no way revelatory, is attuned to its source material’s non-heroic and morally ambiguous approach to a well-worn genre.
This review of A Most Wanted Man was originally published on 23 June as part of our Edinburgh Film Festival coverage.