Following the critical success of The American and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and boasting a cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe, critics lined up this past Friday (with more than a few disgruntled badgeholders turned away) for Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, the latest (specifically, the eighth) John le Carre novel to hit the big screen, with a ninth (Our Kind of Traitor) hitting later this year. Tackling post-9/11 political intrigue on the banks of the River Elbe, the film follows the story of a young Chechen Muslim (Grigoriy Dobrygin) seeking asylum in Hamburg (loosely inspired by the case of Murat Kurnaz, the author of Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo) and the various agents and agencies involved, including a world-weary German spy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team of undercover-bordering-on-unofficial agents (including a scene-stealing Nina Hoss and underutilized Daniel Brühl).
Almost too on-the-nose, the film opens with gray waves crashing and breaking on a stone wall while we are told of Hamburg’s descent from an open, immigrant-friendly port city (second largest in Europe) to a metropolis rife with fear, paranoia and secret agencies with undercover goings-on. How did that happen, you ask? (If you don’t, I congratulate you on your I.R. degree, J-School diploma and/or CNN addiction.) Well, Hamburg unknowingly played host to the planning of 9-11, and since that discovery, the film tells us that they vowed to never let such a travesty of international security to happen on their watch ever again. So when a scraggly young man radiating disorientation and irksomeness wanders around a Hamburg train station a few too many times, the alarm sounds and Gunther Bachmann (Hoffman) sets his team to identify the man and his threat potential. As Bachmann’s team discovers that the young man is a Chechen Muslim political jailbird named Issa Karlov, the son of a high-up Soviet official and his 15 year-old Chechen rape victim, Karlov finds an advocate in liberal (and comely) lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who helps him claim his extensive (and tainted) inheritance from a Hamburg bank. From there, the plot ebbs and flows through multiple, progressively intertwining plotlines and murky international waters, focusing mainly on Bachmann and Richter who turn from adversaries into allies over Karlov’s case. The players include stealthy American agent Martha Sullivan (a deceptively chipper Robin Wright) and sleek German banker Tommy Brue (an attractively smarmy Willem Dafoe).
The score is sweeping with a few choice tunes (Roy Orbison plays softly in the background during a pivotal between Sullivan and Bachmann), Andrew Bovell’s script is a slowburner with a few blips of suspense and deadpan humor (Bachmann’s introduction to Sullivan—”Erna spies and sails… I don’t sail,” followed by a long pause), and the performances are strong (as to be expected with its roster). Hoffman’s Bachmann carries the weight of Hamburg’s covert international affairs on his slovenly-suited shoulders and releases said pressure bit by bit with direct, almost pithy, one-liners and observations in an accurately Brit-influenced German accent (with Bachmann being a modern, well-traveled European who would have learned English with a slight British twang) until a climatic, screen-shattering blow-up. Wide-eyed and idealistic, McAdams’ Richter is honey to the men around her (with an almost Princess Buttercup-like quality—apologies, Robin Wright), who pointedly discuss her attractiveness on multiple occasions. Living up to his selection as one of Indiewire’s 10 Actors to Watch Out For at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Dobrygin’s Karlov manages to go from stark refugee to conscious-wrecked rich kid with a consistent and authentic intensity, even through a near-painfully predictable romantic plot twist.
Not for the faint of patience, A Most Wanted Man is a well-crafted, albeit slow-moving, “spy” film for the 21st Century, highlighted by a subtle, though ultimately devastating, exploration of post-9/11 American and European ideologies. If you are a John le Carre fan, you should be satisfied, if not pleased. If you barely kept your eyes open during Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this is not the film for you.