Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rated PG.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s personal anguish is an unintentional feature of A Most Wanted Man, the great actor’s last serious role. (He’ll be seen in two more Hunger Games sequels.)
Here, he plays Günther Bachmann, a German intelligence officer carrying the weight of the world on his back, and belly. Transferred to Hamburg after a screw-up in Beirut, he locks onto something that might lead to redemption—not that anyone will ever learn of his super-secret ministrations.
With Edge of Darkness screenwriter Andrew Bovell adapting from a 2008 John LeCarré novel, Dutch-born photographer-turned-director Anton Corbijn (who handled the Joy Division biopic Control and the George Clooney spy flick The American) continues his interest in misleading appearances. His studiedly unfussy shots of Hamburg and its famous harbour—all grey skies and garbage-strewn sidestreets—perfectly complement a shadowy demimonde that gets darker with the arrival of Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a bearded Chechen Muslim surreptitiously seeking a man connected to his Russian father’s misdeeds.
The book concentrated on Issa’s wary triangulations with human-rights lawyer Anabel Richter (here played by a placelessly accented Rachel McAdams) and troubled banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe, in friendly-vampire mode). And their uncertain actions played out against a background of British, German, and American agencies competing with each other to justify their own existence in the conveniently unwinnable war on terror.
In the film, these rivalries are limited to Bachmann and his team—mostly consisting of Barbara’s excellent Nina Hoss and an almost unseen Daniel Brühl (star of Ron Howard’s Rush)—plus German security forces, anxious to stomp all over the subtle trap Bachmann is laying with the refugee’s involuntary help. There are a few American intrusions, as represented by a CIA chief played by Robin Wright.
This strategic shift is probably good, as Hoffman’s is by far the most engaging presence. His sorrowfully ciggy-puffing cipher is a strangely warming throwback to the cold warriors of LeCarré’s heyday. Scenes simply drag on too long, however, and the music by Herbert Grönemeyer sounds like reheated John Barry. So you sometimes wonder if you’re seeing a spy movie or a nostalgic tribute to a fading genre.