Anton Corbijn’s latest effort is a slow burner. Everything takes a while to get going, and when it gets going, it toddles along slowly and very steadily. That isn’t to say it’s too slow, but it sort of felt like it was, for a bit. A realisation soon came though that its pace, its superficiality and its understated performances were all carefully constructed and expertly executed to provide a satisfying and intelligent achievement.
A Most Wanted Man – based on acclaimed SIS agent-come author John le Carré’s novel – begins with Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) – a Chechen fugitive/refugee – clambering out of an ambiguous and tortured past and onto German soil. He’s soon tracked by chain smoking German intelligence agent Günter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his ensemble of spies. Karpov becomes acquainted with well meaning bicycle riding lefty lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), executive banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and possible terrorist mogul Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) amongst a myriad of other intelligence agents, informants and key players.
A description of the plot and never ending list of characters feels convoluted and difficult to explain, but during the film it felt extraordinarily simple and understandable. It takes its time to introduce each character, one at a time. For almost the entire duration of the film, the narrative also takes its time to unwind. There is no urgency, no sense of panic. Everyone is in control of everything. Everyone knows what they are doing. There’s no conflict. But the conflict is there, just beneath the surface. Only, in typical espionage fashion, none of it is explicit, everything is implicit or unrevealed. It isn’t about guns and action, but inner turmoil and moral ambiguity.
The clandestine operations aren’t limited to the plot, but extend to the film-making practice as well. In almost every scene with non-spy characters, there is a spy there somewhere. The audience is never informed about each surveillance effort, we’re just passengers along for the ride. The characters are almost impenetrable for much of the film, and their inner most angst and desires are never made clear, everything is open to interpretation. The acting, direction, production design and cinematography are all understated and effortless, nothing draws attention to itself. Moments of action are few and far between, and again this is no bad thing, it isn’t what the film’s about. But when they do come, simple chases or revelations become comparatively tense and are realised with great poise by Corbijn and his cast.
The film makes its stance as a political allegory clear. It is at once direct and subtle with its semantic intentions, stating clearly at the beginning of the film its relation to 9/11 and the war on terror, but never clumsily or crudely revealing its characters to be directly representing ideals and circumstances of their respective nation-state or political stance. It gives its audience enough nudges and winks to allow them to find the pre-formed conclusions, without ever feeling cumbersome or irritating.
The film’s eclectic accomplishments are perhaps only hindered by a questionable casting of Rachel McAdams, who is never believably German; something that is potentially damaging given that the importance of each character’s nationality is key to understanding the story’s sophisticated semantic metaphors. A tender and subtle performance from Grigoriy Dobrygin as Issa Karpov is an unexpected delight and clever chameleon Willem Dafoe is predictably preeminent. Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final theatrical release (I’m not counting The Hunger Games) gives a modest yet accomplished performance. Like the narrative, Hoffman’s inner turmoil is ever present yet underlying, it builds and broods until it finally explodes.
A Most Wanted Man (2014), directed by Anton Corbijn, is distributed in the UK by Momentum Pictures, Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below.