Hollywood can sometimes find itself in that odd place after the death of a beloved actor. The man is no longer with us, but new work continues to surface. Thanks to the machinations of the modern film industry and its predilections to break the final installment of a major franchise into (at least) two films, there are still two years worth of Hunger Games films in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman will have a prominent role. Until then, however, there is the new Anton Corbijn film, A Most Wanted Man, to see his visage on the screen again. The film is an adaptation of a John le Carre novel of the same name, and is another slow burn espionage thriller much like le Carre’s other recently adapted tale, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This time around, the setting is modern day Hamburg, Germany, a town where anti-terror agencies are on high alert thanks to the revelation that the September 11 attacks were planned in their city. Gunther (Hoffman) leads one of these anti-terror teams, and has a Chechen refugee named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who may have ties to an extremist Islamic group in his sights.
Issa claims innocence, damned by the shadow of his family, and seeks asylum with the aid of a young immigration lawyer named Ms. Richter (Rachel McAdams), as well as the inheritance of a large sum of dirty money from his father controlled by a skeptical banker (Willem Dafoe). As Gunther closes in, his op is complicated by some good old fashioned American meddling in the form of Robin Wright’s Marta Sullivan, a representative of the US Embassy taking particular interest in the goings-on of potential Muslim terrorists. Issa wants asylum and peace. Richter wants justice. Gunther wants safety, and the Americans want information and control. Everything about the movement of the plot is delicate. This is not Argo. There will be no chase scenes, no brandishing of guns, no shootouts across a square. The tension is more muted, reserved. The action, such that it is, is confined to smoky bars, offices, board rooms and parked cars. Discussions occur in hushed tones. The story unfurls slowly and deliberately. So slowly, in fact, that it relies heavily on the audience’s ability to focus in on the little details in order to keep track of the movements and plans of its characters.
This is not a new trend for a le Carre adaptation. It is very much in the vein of how he writes, and that style remains in effect for his film adaptation The pacing and the style of A Most Wanted Man are very much in line with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There is, however, a marked difference in the quality of the end result. There is something about the modern setting that does not seem to fit as comfortably with le Carre’s style as his Cold War stories did. It could be a more decentralized and ephemeral enemy compared to the monolithic Soviet menace. It could could that le Carre does not have as good a grasp on how modern technology would affect the spy game. It could also be that the script is not as good. Either way, this film is not nearly as gripping as that which came before it. There are times that scenes are as dry as the Sahara with no oasis in sight.
Hoffman, though this must have been shot near the end of his life, brings the same undeniable intensity and commitment he always does, no matter the size of the role or the silliness of the enterprise. There is not much by way of silliness in A Most Wanted Man, and Hoffman is more than comfortable stalking through the shadows and aggressively smoking cigarettes in the dark. His choice of accent, though, is an odd one. A sort of lilting German rasp that almost sounds Welsh at times, his choice is consistent but often distracting and a tad mush-mouthed in its delivery. McAdams has similar issues with her accent, going for a similar style as Hoffman, and Dafoe can also be a touch shaky. The actual Germans, like Nina Hoss and Daniel Bruhl in supporting roles, feel more natural in comparison, which exacerbates the issue (and Robin Wright has the luxury of playing American, and not having to worry about it). Considering the vital importance of dialogue in la Carre stories, it is a strain on the film’s ability to follow its trajectory when the accent work is more of a distraction than a point of immersion.
One thing is for sure: even when it is uninteresting, A Most Wanted Man is always beautiful. It is no surprise, as director Anton Corbijn is perhaps best known as a photographer, and has established himself as one of the great music video directors of the 1990’s. Shot on location in Hamburg, the film pops off the silver screen despite its often drab settings and muted colors. It helps, but cannot fully overcome the turgid nature of the scripting. It is just a little too slow to maintain its momentum consistently over two hours. One that momentum degrades, the flaws begin to stand out. There is quite a bit to like about A Most Wanted Man, from Hoffman’s work to the visuals to a some well-designed intrigue that ultimately cannot sustain itself. Unfortunately, the bad outweighs the good with this one.