“Spying is waiting.” – from “The Russia House” by John le Carré
When I read John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” for the first time around 1993, I was not very impressed by that novel. Compared to many other mystery/thriller novels I enjoyed during my loony childhood years, the novel felt rather slow, uneventful, and depressing to me, and my attention quickly moved to other fun novels to be devoured and engulfed.
I read le Carré’s novel again through a new paperback edition I bought in 2006, and I got more understanding of his cold, melancholic world of espionage through this classic novel of the Cold War era and his others works including “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and “The Russia House”. This is a gloomy world where its denizens should be careful about every step they make toward their goal, and trusting the people who are supposedly at their side can be an unwise choice sometimes – and there is always a bitter price to pay even when they finally arrive at the end of their dirty, difficult, and dangerous work.
Anton Corbijn’s “A Most Wanted Man”, which is based on le Carré’s 2008 novel with the same name, shows us that the landscape of this shadowy world is not changed a lot even in the 21th century. They look weary and frustrated all the time, but they need to wait patiently for getting their job done, and they sometimes have to do anything for that regardless of their thoughts and feelings, which are usually held behind their detached façade as much as possible.
The center of its story is Günther Bachmann(late Philip Seymour Hoffman with grunting German accent), the leader of a German intelligence agency unit which has been secretly monitoring suspicious Muslim individuals in Hamburg. Because Hamburg was the main base of the 9/11 hijackers, many intelligence agencies around the world have been focusing on this city for detecting any signs of next possible terrorist attacks, and Bachmann, who was relegated to Hamburg after some unfortunate incident in Beirut, has been closely watching on Dr. Faisal Abdullah(Homayoun Ershadi), a well-known moderate Muslim leader who seems to have a hidden connection with an Arab terrorist group in Yemen. Though Dr. Abdullah can be instantly arrested just for extracting information from him, Bachmann wants to get bigger fishes through Dr. Abdullah, and all he wants is a suitable bait to get his target hooked.
And now that suitable bait comes into his radar in the person of Issa Karpov(Grigoriy Dobrygin), a young Russian Muslim who was imprisoned in Russia and Turkey and then recently sneaks into Hamburg for his personal matter. While he wants to have a new life in Hamburg, Karpov also wants to take care of a hidden bank account left to him by his diseased father, a shady Russian general who raped Issa’s Chechen mother and accumulated considerable wealth through his many illegal activities.
As Bachmann and his team members begin to watch on Karpov, several people come into the picture as the potential pawns to be used in Bachmann’s operation. There are a young Turkish boxer and his sweet mother who let Karpov into their home without asking him too much, and then we meet Annabel Richter(Rachel McAdams), a young, idealistic left-wing lawyer who sincerely wants to help Karpov. As his lawyer, Richter gets in contact with Tommy Brue(Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father was associated with Karpov’s father, and Brue soon finds himself in a tricky situation when Bachmann approaches to him.
The circumstance becomes more complicated as the other people on Bachmann’s side begin to show interest to his small but important operation, and one of them is Martha Sullivan(Robin Wright), a ClA official sent from US to oversee the operation. Bachmann does not welcome her, but he cannot deny that he needs her support to get his job done even though, like anyone in his world, she is probably not someone he can trust.
There are also the other puzzle pieces thrown into the story, and it can be confusing at times if you do not pay enough attention to its increasingly complex web between its characters. The adapted screenplay by Andrew Bovell mostly handles well the intricate plot from le Carré’s novel, and the director Anton Corbijn keeps its low-key tension on a sufficient level through the gray, moody atmosphere encompassing his characters and their environment. His previous film “The American”(2010) was about a professional killer who slowly copes with his personal/professional crisis, and his dry but stylish approach shown in that film fits well to the pessimistic worldview of le Carré’s story. The movie has a few consoling moments of humanity in this harsh background, and they mainly come from the tentative relationship between Karpov and Richter, who could become a little more warmed up to each other if it were not for their impossible situation.
The actors in the film give good performances to hold our attention to the story. While Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright competently fill their respective supporting roles as required, Grigoriy Dobrygin gradually draws our sympathy as a damaged man who simply wants to leave behind his past, and the movie also has several notable German performers including Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl as Bachmann’s team members.
And Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, which was one of his last works before his untimely death early in this year, is a key factor in the success of the film. His German accent is a bit strained at first, but Hoffman smoothly immerses himself into his character, and he subtly presents us a weary man driven to accomplish his mission behind his pale, slumped appearance on the screen. Bachmann is a cold, distant man who can be abrasive at times, but he also can be considerate to the people he is going to exploit, and Hoffman has a nice scene in which his character deliberately persuades one of his valuable sources to keep working for him as before. Bachmann may care a bit about a young Muslim guy recruited by him, but he does not hesitate to manipulate this conflicted young man, for it is what should be done for the success of his operation.
Like many previous adaptations of le Carré’s novels, “A Most Wanted Man” is a thriller film depending on mood and characters rather than action, and some of you may lose your patience mainly because of its slow pace, but the way how everything in its labyrinthic plot comes and clicks together in the end is worthwhile to wait for. Although the movie is not exactly one of his best moments, Hoffman is watchable in the film as he was in many of his performances, and I was sadly reminded again of how this great actor left us too early. The movie may be remembered as a minor work in his illustrious career, but it is a respectable footnote none the less.