Set in Hamburg sometime after 9/11, A Most Wanted Man follows the intersecting stories of a Chechen refugee and a secret German anti-terror department. Here international espionage is not James Bond car chases or covert missions; this is a more realistic world of tired-looking people in dull rooms full of paper, drinking gritty coffee, and yet, this film is understatedly beautiful.
Portraying Hamburg as a city that is grey yet fascinating in the minute detail of graffitied underpasses and fluorescent-lit train stations. However, unlike another Le Carre adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it doesn’t go for style over substance. While Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looked excellent and came out surrounded by hype, it was ultimately disappointing, simultaneously difficult to follow, and lacking enough going on. Although the plot moves slowly here and there, it never loses your attention. As the story unfolds the tension is sustained, and the film is as much a character study as it is a thriller.
This is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final film and his brilliant performance makes his death all the more tragic. Many of Hoffman’s previous performances are just as fascinating but unfortunately supporting characters, here he leads the film as Gunther Bachmann – gruff-voiced and sickly looking – a man worn out by a difficult job. Apart from a slightly odd German accent (everyone’s German accent sounded odd, except Daniel Bruhl) his performance is flawless, tired but clearly clever, you can see the cogs ticking.
Films about terrorism can stray into Islamophobia (the otherwise excellent Zero Dark Thirty is an example) but here, the film’s Muslim characters are varied and sympathetic. Two examples that stand out are Jamal, one of Bachmann’s spies and the nervous son of an academic with possible links to Al-Quaeda, and Issa, a refugee running from his father’s violent history who was excellently played by Grigoriy Dobrygin. Dobrygin’s performance was quietly intense with staring eyes conveying his internal trauma.
It’s a slow burner, but the central performances from Hoffman and Dobrygin, and the excellent cinematography, draw you in and fascinate. An atypical thriller, but thrilling just the same.