Hoffman the Shark

A Most Wanted Man
(UK/USA/Germany, 121 min.)
Dir. Anton Corbijn, Writ. Andrew Bovell
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Willem Dafoe, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl, Homayoun Ershadi
“His strength was a total immersion in the role and a lack of vanity,” recalls director Anton Corbijn while speaking of his experience working with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman on A Most Wanted Man. A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman’s final starring role and last completed film (although his final work in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay hits theatres this fall), displays Hoffman’s humble absorption in his work at its best. His engrossing turn as German spy Günther Bachmann in this adaptation of John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man displays the kind of immersive character work that made Hoffman of one the best actors of his generation, if not the best.                                                

Günther, a whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking man of imposing stature, offers a fitting role for the work that Hoffman does best.  (It's undeniably sad, though, to watch Hoffman portray the hard-drinking Günther with such masterful understanding of a character when he himself died a victim of substance abuse.) He’s a man of isolation, almost fanatically so, as his commitment to his work makes him a man of intimidating skill and stature. Günther heads a covert group of spies for an unnamed Germany organization that ferrets out leads and follows them to potential terrorist rings. “It takes a minnow to catch a barracuda and a barracuda to catch a shark,” he explains while going after bigger fish when his German colleagues and the CIA are content to make examples of the minnows.

A Most Wanted Man sees Günther pursue a minnow named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant who hands in Hamburg after surviving torture in Russia and Turkey. Hamburg is on high alert in the years after terrorists used it as a plotting ground for 9/11, and this wanted man with an Arab first name puts Günther and co. on high alert. Some surprisingly good leads and the stealthy cunning of Günther’s crew, which includes Irna (Barbara’s enigmatic Nina Hoss) and Max (Rush’s Daniel Brühl), sets the spies luring in a shrewd banker named Brue (Willem Dafoe) and a naïve human rights lawyer named Annabel (Rachel McAdams), and the operation sets the bait for the barracuda.

A Most Wanted Man unfurls a reserved espionage thriller as Günther spends ample time sitting and waiting for Issa to take the bait and lead them to a wealthy patron named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) whom he believes to be laundering money into terrorist organizations. The adaptation by screenwriter Andrew Bovell (writer of Lantana, a character-driven Australian thriller that everyone needs to see) goes against convention for spy films and takes an investigative route akin to HBO’s The Wire where much of the screentime pertains to sitting, watching, waiting, and observing. It’s a methodical style, and one that’s likely much truer to life, yet the slow coldness of A Most Wanted Man is mesmerizing if one has the patience.

It’s thrilling, for example, to watch a meeting between Brue and Annabel and then notice that Irna sits right in the corner of the frame. “How did they track them down so fast?” one wonders as the master spies calculate every step of the game. Tension simmers as frosty conversations between Günther and his CIA “observer” Martha (Robin Wright, terrifically chilly) make a game out of insinuation and intuition. It’s spy versus spy even in a collaborative affair. Whether Günther is a barracuda or a fisherman is part of the mystery.

Cool, dense cinematography (and some art direction that takes a cue from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) lets the atmosphere and characters drive the tension and suspense. Corbijn, a photographer in addition to being a filmmaker, composes some sly images that let audiences play the spy. Deep focus and busy composition keep one’s eyes on alert—the opening image of crashing waves alone signals that A Most Wanted Man is a visually and intellectually demanding film. Watch Günther down spirits while the frame fills with smoke, and the film uses the palpable ennui of the characters to ratchet up the tension. The paranoia isn’t so much about another 9/11 as it is about a man’s career and reputation.

The action of the film, or lack thereof, conveys the inevitable isolation in which one resides during such a demanding and tiring job. A Most Wanted Man is a cold and lonely thriller, but the atmosphere is perfect for Hoffman to embellish the psychology of his rumpled and obsessive spy. He slips into the role of Günther as imperceptibly as Gary Oldman does as the meticulous and detached George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A Most Wanted Man is an even slower burn than the 2011 le Carré adaptation, but both films deliver equally notable old-school espionage films driven by bravura lead performances.

A strong ensemble cast aids Hoffman in making A Most Wanted Man a tautly engaging thriller. Wright and Hoss are especially strong, while Dafoe and newcomer Dobrygin smartly straddle the roles of friend and foe. McAdams is quite likable as the inexperienced Annabel, although she struggles with the German accent somewhat. Hoffman, on the other hand, displays such a masterful command of his character that one might actually believe him to be a native German. Corbijn’s strikingly economic visual language thankfully lets Hoffman’s work assume the greatest scale of the film without engulfing it in his performance. A Most Wanted Man shows Hoffman at his best, as a part of ensemble, although the riveting surprise finale gives the actor an explosive moment that affirms the film first and foremost as Günther’s show. He's the shark atop Günther's metaphorical food chain. This troubled, driven, and compelling character is a strong swan song for an actor lost too soon.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

A Most Wanted Man screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until July 31.

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