Hollywood’s mining of Le Carré novels for inspiration was always a mixed bag affair, from the excellent Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to the underwhelming The Constant Gardener. I’m happy to report that A Most Wanted Man firmly takes it’s place in the upper end of the Le Carré adaptation spectrum.
TV tropes argue that spy fiction tends to come in two flavours – martini and stale beer. A Most Wanted Man is clearly the latter. The story centres on a Chechen refugee, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who arrives in Hamburg with a mission to make contact with a shady banker (an underused Willem Dafoe). He seeks the help of an immigration lawyer (Rachel McAdams), to handle his precarious legal position, having entered the country illegally.
German intelligence identify Karpov from surveillance footage, believing him to be a potentially dangerous terrorist, and so begins a delicate tightrope walk for our protagonist Bachmann (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). Bachmann, must follow these leads to protect the public (if indeed Karpov proves a threat) but must also prevent the violation of German law and the extraordinary rendition of every suspect foreigner by CIA operatives (Robin Wright) and police in Berlin (if Karpov is innocent).
Like much of Anton Corbijn’s work (The American, Control), A Most Wanted Man shares that distant, slow burn feeling. The narrative moves slowly, in smoky bars, surveillance vans and confidential meetings. Bachmann wanders through these scenes in certain isolation but never looks for the audiences pity. Thus the characters are the focus of Corbijn’s gaze and the plot, although intricate, is often of secondary importance. However, lest this put off the viewer who thrives on a twisting/turning narrative, A Most Wanted Man is far from plotless and the patient viewer will be more than adequately rewarded as the key story plays out in the last 20 minutes.
Unlike much spy fiction (and from a more feminist perspective) the movie does well to include several strong female characters who are driven by motives far beyond ‘the want of a good husband’ but who also offer more to the plot than mere window dressing or as light relief for the protagonist. There is no rape or torture and the female characters are not rescued at the last minute – these ladies are doing just fine on their own thank you very much. It also passes the bechdel test (though only barely) and I appreciated watching a film where it’s female characters were so realistically drawn.
For all that, A Most Wanted Man, remains Hoffman’s film. His scruffy spy is reminiscent of Smiley from Tinker Tailor – an unassuming man trying to do the right thing in impossible circumstances. Hoffman owns the screen wearing just the right amount of stale beer and for that, it is a fitting final bow for an actor who accomplished so much in such a short life.